A letter from the Transitional Leader

ElizabethPresbyLogoStackedApril 7, 2015

Dear Friends in Christ,

On Good Friday evening, as you may have done, I sat in a darkened sanctuary with the faithful who had gathered to commemorate the death of Jesus.  The service, a Tenebrae, led us more and more deeply into darkness, through words of Scripture, offerings of musical anthems, prayers, and the extinguishing of candles.  When we came to “The Darkness of Disunity,”  my own sadness deepened.  Through the words in printed in the bulletin we prayed,

“Lord, we are all your servants here, all striving to be united in Christ,
yet unable to unite with each other.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, this very night before the cock crows
you will deny me three times.”
Do your best to preserve the unity that the Spirit gives, by the peace that binds you together.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you.  There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.  There is one God and Father of all people, who is the Lord of all, works through all, and is in all.
But the meaning of the words is lost in our disputes over our differences.
We have spent many years pointing out how each group differs from the other.
Let us now give equal time to our similarities.
We follow Christ that we might find you, God. 
He is the path you set for us to walk but we cannot tread that path alone.
We need guidance from you and from each other.
We follow the same path, the same Teacher, the same God.  Help us to respect our differences and work toward the oneness that we have in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
 

As another candle was extinguished,
I thought….Is this what we are doing?  Extinguishing the light? 

Responding to the action taken by your Session, the Presbytery of Elizabeth formed a Resolution Team to work through a process of discernment about the gracious dismissal of the your church from the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.   You have been talking about this for a while.  And now it’s time for dialogue that includes representatives of the Presbytery.

Enclosed with this packet, you will find:

  • A Letter of Invitation to worship and a time of dialogue on Sunday, April 19
  • A brochure entitled, “Why Stay,” which has been prepared by presbytery representatives of the Resolution Team
  • A Presbyterian Church USA comparison chart, comparing the Basic Beliefs and Viewpoints of Three Presbyterian Denominations: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO), and Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)

As you receive and read this packet, Good Friday has given way to Easter.  The wind of Christ’s resurrection is calling us to new life.  Nothing we do or fail to do will extinguish the light.  And  the world needs our witness.

As you consider gracious dismissal from the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., we acknowledge the differences that have built up over a number of years, we lament the words and actions that have led to broken trust, and we recognize that for many of you, the relationship is not working.

And we wonder how your continued affiliation with the PUCSA might actually build up the Body of Christ?  We ask you to consider the following possibilities:

  • Your strong focus on evangelism is a bold witness and can teach other congregations of the presbytery how to recover this.
  • You have followed Jesus’ incarnational Spirit into new forms of worship, ecclesiology, and mission that can help us imagine and live into reform.
  • Your mission and theology represent a large portion of the church universal to whom we are called to communion in the Holy Spirit.
  • Your witness – your experience of God’s saving love and truth through Jesus Christ, spoken through your voice and shared through your actions, nourishes our faith.
  • Your support and accountability are important, as we live out our discipleship.
  • Your partnership, your prayers, your presence embody the unity to which Christ calls us.

In Christ,

Cheryl D. Galan, Transitional Leader
The Presbytery of Elizabeth

New Providence Sermon by Rev. Paul Rack

The following sermon was preached by the Rev. Paul Rack, Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, at the New Providence Presbyterian Church, April 19, 2015.

We Do Not Belong to the World.

John 17:6-19.

First of all, I want to thank Jeff and the session for inviting me to preach today.  It has been a pleasure getting to know the members of the resolution team.  However, this works out I hope we remain sisters and brothers in our one Lord Jesus.

I.   Our passage for this morning is the second part of Jesus’ great High Priestly Prayer in John 17.  Jesus offers these words to God on the evening before his death, as a kind of prayer of consecration leading up to his sacrifice where he gives his life for the life of the world.

I am interested in what he has to say about our relationship as disciples of Jesus to “the world.”  One of the most common complaints against denominations like the PCUSA is that we have essentially abandoned the gospel and caved in to the world.  That is, instead of following Christ, we allow our agenda to be set by the latest secular fad, or the newest, most vanguard, leftist political movement.  Where Jesus talks about conquering the world, many assert that the PCUSA has allowed itself to be conquered by the world.  My colleague Jeff has suggested as much.  Repeatedly.

In the first part of this passage, the Lord refers to the disciples as those whom God gave him from the world.  Disciples are therefore called out of the world, in the sense of being called to God and away from the values, practices, habits, traditions, politics, and economics dominant in the world.

Jesus is focusing like a mother-bird hovering over this fragile, shaky, still fairly clueless gathering of disciples he has called together, knowing that he is placing the whole future of God’s mission into their frankly pretty incompetent and inept hands.

Now, anticipating his status only a few hours later, he says he is “no longer in the world.”  He is returning to the Father.  He is about to be “lifted up” on the cross to draw all people to himself.  He is about take away the sin of the world.  The hour has come for him to drive out the ruler of this world.

II.   And, in leaving this gathering behind in the world, the Lord calls upon them to be one with each other even as he, the Son, is one with the Father.  In their unity in him they will find unity with and in God; they will become the continuing earthly expression of the saving presence and love of God that he himself was while he was with them.

In other words, Jesus establishes an on-going community, a community that, in the way its members cling to and support each other, continues to dwell under his protection.  And they will need protection.  The Lord knows the world is a hostile and violent place.  In binding themselves to each other as one, the disciples are binding themselves to him and therefore to God.

Now they will have to be protected, not by his physical presence, but by his remembered and enacted word.  Jesus, who is going on back to his Father,  addresses his disciples while they are still in the world so that they may have his joy complete in themselves.  What we receive from the Lord is his joy!  Joy is what is going to get them through.

Joy comes from the knowledge that no matter what happens in the meantime, God wins in the end.  In Christ’s sacrifice, the world’s sins are taken away, the ruler of this world is defeated, God’s life is given for the life of the world, and God’s love dwells within them.  If this doesn’t produce joy in the disciples, nothing will.

Jesus says, “They do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world.”   He repeats that sentence for emphasis.  He is not asking God to take the disciples out of the world, but to protect them from the evil one while they are in the world.  Here is the key to the whole passage, I think.  We who belong to Christ do not belong to the world anymore than Christ does.  We do not belong to the world.  The world does not own us.  Rather, he has sent us into the world, even as the Father sent him into the world.  We are sent, as if into an alien country, into the world.

So Christ sends the church into the world equipped with and by himself, the Word of God, and his teachings and commandments.  The Word is at the same time our protection and our proclamation.  The Word shapes our lives and our gathering, and by him we witness to his casting out of the ruler of this world, and his taking away the sins of the world, indeed his conquest of the world, his drawing of all things and all people to himself, the One whom God sent into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.

III.   In our Book of Confessions, we find this very truth affirmed in these amazing, strong, and basic words from the Declaration of Barmen: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.  We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”  We follow the Word in and into the world; we do not follow the world or the rulers of this world.

This sensibility has motivated me for my 33 years in ministry.  These affirmations have been taken with utmost seriousness and rigor by many in the Presbyterian Church (USA) over the past six or seven decades.

It makes a difference to realize and affirm that “Jesus Christ as he is attested in Holy Scripture” is at the center of our life.  It makes a difference to invest in holding to that standard, because it subjects everything else, all those “other events and powers, figures and truths,” to withering critique.  It takes energy and courage to listen to that one Word of God when he challenges and calls us away from every sacred cow, every corrupt allegiance, every comfortable assumption, every self-serving value that had managed to sidle and sneak and bully and buy its way into our churches over the centuries.

First of all, we sought to take the Bible even more seriously by identifying and getting away from the interpretive lenses of the world, and the past, and the assumptions and biases of conventional, self-serving theologies, and allowing the word to challenge and contradict our lives.

Then, when we looked to “Jesus Christ as he is attested in Holy Scripture,” we found someone not all that comfortable with the systems in his own day that preserved and protected by violence and coercion the privilege, inequality, wealth, and power of the elites.  We found someone who, from before he is even born, is charged with turning upside-down those regimes, and who commences his ministry by proclaiming justice and jubilee.  We found someone who makes it his business to heal the sick, raise the dead, welcome the outcast, and feed the hungry; who is notorious for including and welcoming and even identifying with all kinds of marginalized people; who infamously hangs out with tax collectors and prostitutes; and who has almost nothing positive to say about wealth or most of the other things valued by the world; and who demands that we give up our lives and follow him.  We found someone who preaches non-violence and the love of enemies.  We found someone who even overturns and cancels out much of Scripture, like the ceremonial and kosher laws.  We found someone who was crucified by the ruling authorities and powers of his day as a seditious blasphemer.

IV.   At our best, what we have tried to do is to follow this Jesus.  We looked around at our own world and we found it under the same powers of evil, and filled with the same kinds of corruption and destructive disorder, that Jesus addresses.  And we have endeavored to follow and obey this subversive radical Jesus by looking to challenge in our own day the same kinds of injustices, inequalities, violence, hypocrisies, and accretions of wealth and power that he opposed.  We have tried to identify with, serve, and include the poor, the victims, the outcast, the hungry, and the blind.  We have stood with suffering people even when it was unpopular.  We have worked for peace and non-violence.  And if we have been sometimes very slow to judge and condemn people labelled as seditious blasphemers today, maybe it is because Jesus, and we, have sometimes been given the same label.  Indeed, when the world calls you a seditious blasphemer it means we could be doing something right.  It could be because we are following the Lord.

Thus the PCUSA has been “Christ-centered.”  Because the Jesus Christ attested in Holy Scripture is about justice, inclusion, non-violence, equality, and forgiveness.

This journey hasn’t been pretty.  It hasn’t been easy.  It hasn’t been orderly.  It hasn’t even been particularly nice.  There were and are nasty and demonic aspects of the world that we have not given up, but chose instead of follow rather uncritically.  We have allowed ourselves to be duped by figures using violence.  We would rather trust in our often adversarial and legalistic procedures than in the Holy Spirit.

And we have found ways to be depressingly cruel with each other, self-righteously treating sisters and brothers in Christ as enemies.  Instead of gathering around the Word together, we huddled in our separate corners where it is easier to hear what we want to hear and demonize those others.  We have spoken at each other rather than with each other.  We have allowed ourselves to be motivated by fear rather than love, and anger rather than trust.  I hope we have learned in the crucible of these difficult decades to be a lot less arrogant, self-righteous, and exclusive.  A lot of us have.

At the same time, the Kingdom of God has been blooming here and there among us in spite of our too often faithless and malicious ineptitude.  We are changing.

After decades of a top-heavy, corporate, bureaucratic, regulatory regime, we are now focusing on and lifting up congregations as the primary locus of mission which presbyteries exist to empower and support.  After decades of careless ineptitude in church-planting and evangelism, we have set ourselves the task of establishing new worshiping communities, of which there are now nearly 300, including one formed by this congregation.  After decades of a knee-jerk, one-dimensional ideological agenda, we are now more open to orthodox and traditional and evangelical voices in terms of spiritual practices, new liturgies and music, ecclesiology, and evangelism.  You have had more influence than you realize.

V.   All of this and more is a result, in my view, of a continuous response to Jesus Christ, as he is attested in Holy Scripture.  I wonder if Jesus doesn’t intend for his disciples to be an inclusive, diverse “big tent.”  Jesus even shares his last meal with, and washes the feet of Judas Iscariot, for heaven’s sake.  Yet we can’t manage to remain connected to each other?

Jesus assumes a community of mutually correcting and supporting oneness and unity.  The term “denomination” is not found in the New Testament.  Indeed, we are in an increasingly post-denominational age.  We need to be integrating and connecting with each other, not starting new independent entities.  We need to be exploring new kinds of networking and organization, new ways of communicating and learning from each other, new ways of conversation and discernment.  Should we really be separating off into yet more precise and exclusive grades of Presbyterian, of all things?  What kind of witness does that make?  How is that obedience to Jesus Christ as he is attested in Holy Scripture?

The Lord doesn’t call on us to agree on everything.  He calls on us to love one another as he has loved us.  He loves us by giving us his life!  And in that life he sends us into the world as his witnesses.  Whatever the Spirit has for us, may we realize in our life together the sanctification that Jesus asks for.  May we be made holy in the truth which is God’s Word, Jesus Christ.  May we be made holy together in his love and his joy and his peace.

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Liberty Corner Sermon by Rev. Ray Roberts

The following sermon was preached at the Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church, by the Rev. Dr. Ray Roberts, pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Westfield, April 19, 2015.

Why Stay? – Philippians 1:3-11

I first want to thank Don and the session for the privilege of speaking with you today.  It cannot be easy for your leaders to sense God calling your congregation in one direction and then allow a pastor the opportunity to try and make it more difficult. I am grateful for this honor.

The Scripture I want us to look at today comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul and the church in Philippi had a close relationship.  Indeed, the occasion for this letter was a gift from the Philippian congregation brought by a man named Apaphroditus. What strikes me about this passage is Paul’s affection for those Philippians.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.

I HAVE HAD NUMEROUS OPPORTUNITIES TO GIVE THANKS TO GOD FOR OUR PARTNERSHIP IN THE GOSPEL.  I thank God that when I was a new pastor in Westfield and we were first developing a vision for ministry we consulted with Steve McConnell on several occasions. I thank God for your hospitality in allowing us to hold a session retreat here.  I think God that when we began working on our contemporary worship service, the first person I called was your Worship Director, Ron Stafford. Of all the people we consulted in the process of starting new contemporary worship service, he was most helpful.  He helped me see that contemporary worship is not just about music, but video.  I was thinking we would start small, on a shoe string, and grow it, but he helped me see that if we were going to do this, we should go big and make a big investment up front. As a result, today, a year and ½ later, by God’s grace, our contemporary worship service is the second largest worship service in Westfield.

I give thanks to God for our partnership in the gospel and I grieve that if Liberty Corner leaves the PCUSA leaders will not see each other at Presbytery meetings and ties that bind us together as partners in the gospel will weaken.

WHEN I CONSIDER WHY I THINK YOU SHOULD STAY IN THE PCUSA, PARTNERSHIP IN THE GOSPEL LIES AT THE HEART OF IT.  You see the PCUSA is a community of gospel partners who have worked together for centuries. We have talked through theological issues like human agency and divine sovereignty in salvation, moral issues like slavery, and practical ways to make disciples of all nations.

One way a denomination shapes its beliefs and values is through its seminaries. I did not grow up Presbyterian and attended three seminaries when I was working on my M.Div. The first seminary I attended, Eden Seminary in St. Louis, was a United Church of Christ Seminary. I transferred to Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, now affiliated with the PCA.  Thank God my Presbytery was concerned about what sort of pastor I was becoming and urged me to finish at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia.  I later did a Ph.D. in history and theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary.  I can testify that the non-Presbyterian seminaries produce very different sorts of pastors.

When I was at Covenant Seminary students and professors told me over and over how faithless and liberal the PCUSA was, how we had traded the gospel message for liberal social positions.  Why? Because the PCUSA supported the integration of public schools and civil rights. To them this was clear evidence that we had forsaken the gospel for worldly social issues.

Does the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians have a seminary?  No.  It does not.  Who will form your pastors?

Bible Presbyterian Church in Amherst County, Virginia was started by members of the Amherst Presbyterian Church who thought Presbyterians had gone all liberal by ordaining women. They joined a Presbyterian denomination that lacked strong church property rules.  Shortly after I became pastor of the Amherst Presbyterian Church, they brought in a stated supply preacher, a professor from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.  That church is now fundamentalist Baptist.

Who will your pastors be 10 years from now?  Where will they be formed?

Another way our church forms distinctly Christian values are through those pesky social statements that some claim distract us from our central mission. Our church can proudly say that we’ve led many transformations in our society.  In every state of the Union we were the earliest supporters of universal public education. Northern Presbyterians opposed slavery. Following the Civil War we built over 1000 schools for freed blacks, in addition to several colleges. We supported child-labor laws. We ministered to Japanese citizens who were interred during the war and spoke forthrightly against anti-Japanese racism.  We were early supporters of civil rights and women’s rights.  We were telling people not to disparage gays in the 1950’s.  We opposed the Vietnam War.  We supported using American force to stop the Bosnian crisis.  We voiced concerns about the Iraq War.

These conversations were always started by and held by people like you, Christians who thought the church should seek the mind of Christ on a moral issue. While many were controversial at the time, with the benefit of hindsight, hardly any seem extreme.

Some claim the church spends too much time in the weeds of controversy.  There was a time when the old Southern Presbyterian Church said that the church should not discuss controversies like slavery or Jim Crow because it compromised the “the spirituality of the church,” which was to be about the spiritual business of preparing disciples for eternal life.  What kind of disciples did they form?  They either formed disciples who thought Jesus and the Bible are irrelevant to moral questions. Or they formed disciples who thought Jesus is indifferent to the plight of blacks or women.

I’m glad for the witness of the Presbyterian Church and that we continually seek the mind of Christ on important issues. Would you be part of a church that opposed civil rights for African Americans?  Or didn’t allow women in leadership? I plead with you: don’t walk away from that. We need your partnership in this conversation.

ANOTHER DIMENSION OF PARTNERSHIP YOU’LL MISS ARE THE LONG-STANDING MISSION RELATIONSHIPS WE HAVE AROUND THE WORLD.

Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan was founded by Presbyterian Missionary, Charles Forman, in 1864 and became the finest institution of higher education in the Indian-subcontinent.  In 1972 the Pakistan government nationalized the college. Islamists took over the school and populated it with radical Muslims, even turning several rooms into weapons caches. And then in 2003 the unthinkable happened: The Muslim government gave it back to the Presbyterian Church.  Why?  Because they remembered that we had been good stewards of the school.  It helps to be a denomination with a long history of good global relationships!

Last month I met with members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba. The purpose of my trip was to renew the partnership between our churches. The Presbyterian Church in Cuba was started by Presbyterian Missionaries in the mid-19th Century.  After the communist revolution the government put the church under severe pressure. One Church, at Encruze Hara, had a school and hospital.  The government nationalized the school and the hospital.  And they pressured people not to attend worship, hoping that it would be abandoned and they could take it.  For 30 years, one elder and his family went to church every Sunday, read a scripture, sang a hymn, and went home. Their faithfulness kept the church building and today, with the help of mission connections in the PCUSA they have repaired the sanctuary, gathered a congregation and hope to call a pastor.

I came home excited about our partnership. Their churches are growing and they need our help to take advantage of a generational opportunity to make disciples. Their economy is on the brink of change.  They have three generations of people who have never run anything, whereas we have churches full of people who know how to run a business. Finally, when we support the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba, we are supporting a democratic church in a country that has had an authoritarian government. Congregational life is a laboratory for citizenship!  This past week I was at the Presbyterian Mission Agency meeting in Louisville, KY.  I had lunch Friday with Hunter Farrell and other mission staff.  We talked about the church in Cuba and how they hope to help the Cuban church through the coming transition by making connections with partner churches and their mission co-workers that emerged from Soviet totalitarianism.

I could go on with stories like these. Yet I learned this week that mission funding is decreasing because churches are leaving. Please don’t leave this historic, important, long-standing network of gospel partners.

Some say THE NATIONAL CHURCH DOES NOTHING FOR THE LOCAL CHURCH. Besides working together to maintain a faithful witness to Jesus Christ through the centuries, supporting seminaries that form pastors, seeking the mind of Christ on moral issues, and working together on global mission, the denomination produces hymnals, worship materials, educational curriculum, and disciple-making resources.

Since 2012 the 1001 Worshipping Congregations Initiative has helped start nearly 300 new worshipping communities.  Most of the people who attend these are young adults, 77% of them are new to the PCUSA, and 44% are unchurched or formerly non-Christian.  And, because we aren’t counting these people the same way, almost none of the people we’ve reached are counted among our members.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is helping partner churches, such as the Presbyterian Church in Kirkuk, Iraq, house refugees of ISIL.  We also just sent $300,000 to churches in Boston Presbytery recovering from winter.  They also sent an expert on insurance to help congregations, especially immigrant congregations, file insurance claims. We are stronger when we are partners in the gospel.

This week I talked with Ray Jones, head of evangelism for the General Assembly who told me about the new Engage curriculum for making adult disciples. He told me about several churches that were in his words, “about dead” that studied the Engage Curriculum. Next thing you know their members were having conversations with their neighbors and sharing the gospel and have received a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

I talked with Deb Coe, who works in research services at the General Assembly.  She’s studies congregational effectiveness to identify best practices and she’s excited about findings on vital congregations that she will present at the Big Tent event this summer.

Finally I had a long conversation with Sara Otoum who we just hired by the denomination to work on social media outreach.  She will be working to improve the way we tell these sorts of stories so you know what God is doing in the church.  So we can be like the church we read about in Acts, which saw the signs and wonders of God working among them and were encouraged.

While all of this is significant, we are at a place of significant reformation as a church. Just about every denomination in America is experiencing decline. Some of the most precipitous decline right now is among churches like the Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans where young people are leaving in droves. A number of things drive this, including, the secularization of culture and digital technology, which is changing how people gather information, form an identity and connect with others.

So God is doing something new in the church.  We need to find new ways to carry out our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  It is an exciting time to be in ministry.  I say this because the church has gone through periods of expansion and contraction before.  We fondly celebrate times of expansion, the first great awakening (1740-1776), the second great awakening (1800-1830), the third great awakening (1870-1900) and the post war expansion (1940-1970).  We never remember that each expansion followed a contraction; where the church shrank and people became concerned.  But a new day was coming because God was still working.  Indeed, this is the real reason to be hopeful about the future of God’s church.

You see this sort of hope in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Throughout his letter to the Philippians, he strikes a note of hope.  “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I say it, rejoice.  Don’t be anxious about anything.” How can he be so confident?  Because, Paul says,

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

You see:  The future of the church is not in my hands or in Don’s hands.  It is not in the hands of the people who work in Louisville, KY.  It is not depend on the vote you will take, or on the sinners and saints down at the Presbyterian Church in Westfield. It is in God’s hands.  So I confident in God, I, with Paul, pray that “your love (for Jesus Christ and for your brothers and sisters in the church) may overflow in knowledge and understanding, so you may know what is best.”  Amen.