Sermon by: Robert Austell
[audio may vary significantly from manuscript below]
As many of you know, I was elected to serve as a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which met for eight days in San Jose, California, and ended about one week ago.
As has been the case for as many years as I can remember, that Assembly discussed and voted on a number of hot-button issues and generated controversial headlines. I have included a summary of these decisions and their implications in the newsletter that is going out this week. If you can’t wait for that, you can access my blog through the church website and read more about it this afternoon.
What I want to share with you this morning, however, is something that in many ways trumped all of that business for me. It was a personal experience with the presence and power of God, and it preceded the Assembly, ran throughout it, and continues even now. This will be less of a sermon and more a personal testimony, but I believe it will point us to God’s grace and way of working in our lives. I am more than willing to talk about the Assembly and the various decisions and implications, but for today, I’d like to hold this story out to you as something far more important that I learned.
One Small Lunch
The story in today’s text is probably familiar to many. It is the story usually referred to as “The Feeding of the Five Thousand.” In it, Jesus has withdrawn to a mountain with the disciples, but is followed (for miles and miles) by a very large crowd eager to hear him teach. As meal-time comes and goes, Jesus tells the disciples to go see what food they can pull together, and all they can come up with is one boy’s lunch of five loaves and two small fish.
I know you probably know what will happen, but can you pause the scene in your head long enough to imagine those moments? Can you imagine the thoughts and words of the disciples when they come back together and that’s all they have? Ridiculous! Impractical! Impossible! Help! What will we do?!
And Jesus takes that meager offering and does the impossible. What a story!
That’s the story I want to share with you…
Gearing Up for Battle
In terms of ministry, my first love is being pastor of Good Shepherd. There is nothing I love so much as living among you, praying for you, sharing God’s Word with you, and caring for you. It is only reluctantly that I fulfill responsibilities at presbytery and within the denomination. And yet, I do take those responsibilities seriously. And honestly, I am concerned about the Presbyterian Church (USA). I find myself and most of our membership to be in a very different place theologically and practically than the whole of the denomination. I am clear about that when folks join the church and we put a statement of faith on our bulletin to try to be clear about what we believe here.
And it seems as if part of God’s calling for me is to speak truth and demonstrate faithful engagement with the denomination. Without seeking it (and in fact shying away from it), God has opened up positions of leadership in the presbytery, putting me on the governing Council and having me chair of the committee in charge of presbytery worship, theology, and polity (how we organize and work together). It’s nothing I imagined or sought out, but I can’t imagine being in a more significant place to speak truth and demonstrate faith.
About nine months ago, it became time to nominate people to serve as General Assembly commissioners. With no seniority, and not qualifying for the many special categories of geography, ethnicity, and gender, I was nonetheless selected to be a commissioner. I was convinced (and still am) that God had a purpose in sending me to GA (General Assembly).
I follow Presbyterian theology and history and plugged in quickly to the many “renewal groups” who work at the Assembly level to try to maintain biblical and historical standards in the church. In the months and weeks leading up to the Assembly, I began to “gear up for battle,” becoming familiar with all the items of business and the process of supporting, opposing, and amending business presented first in committee by topic, then on the floor of the Assembly. And I participated fully in all that, even leading the worship each night for the gathering of renewal-minded commissioners and friends as we reviewed the previous and coming day’s business.
Even as plugged in as I was, I wondered sometimes what one voice could do among nearly 900 commissioners and a denomination that is even slower in changing course than an individual church.
Throughout all that, God was focusing me on one particular thing.
My Small Offering
In the week leading up to GA, I believe God began putting something on my mind and heart. That something was the witness of the denomination to the world we are supposed to be reaching with the Gospel. In particular, I was and am grieved by Christians suing Christians as some congregations decide “enough is enough” and move to be released from the PCUSA. While those legal actions are oriented mostly around church property (and therefore money), I think the cost to either church or denomination pales in comparison to what such actions costs our witness to each other and the world. In many ways, it is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a messy divorce, where the collateral damage greatly outweighs the terms of the settlement.
Specifically, I am concerned for those congregations who believe that their conscience is bound if they remain in the PCUSA, and they must leave, only to find hurdles to leaving that can seemingly only be overcome in court.
But what I became passionate about – filled to the bursting point over – was the recognition of what fighting each other over property is doing to our witness. You know that our mission to our neighbors and the world is of paramount importance… what is gaining the building if we lose our voice? This is what I felt compelled to say to the Assembly… but it seemed so unlikely and impossible given the limitations of “my one voice” amidst the whole.
Typically, Assembly business comes as an overture from a presbytery (a regional gathering of 30-140 individual churches). But, it is allowable for two commissioners to make an overture while at the Assembly, if certain strict guidelines are met. I decided to see if I could do such a thing and somehow address this immense topic of our gospel witness to our neighbors and the world.
I will tell you that such concerns are not the current climate of the church. In recent years, leaders have instructed presbyteries to get all they can and to not let people leave with anything. Church members who leave believe that church property belongs to the local church, and it is inconceivable to simply walk away from what they and their parents and grandparents have built.
I wrote a resolution, imploring presbyteries to create some kind of pastoral and gracious process for those who are convicted they have to leave. In short, I was challenging the denomination to put the interests of others above its own interests. This would have implications in a number of areas. I found another commissioner to co-sponsor it with me. But he was mostly being nice, I think.
I asked friends in the renewal networks for help and they thought it was simply too idealistic and a long-shot, and they had more pressing issues to focus on like overtures on re-defining marriage and radical statements on Israel/Palestine and the Iraq war. In reply to my resolution, one good friend who is probably the foremost expert on how things work at the Assembly wrote to me and said:
You know, don't you, that there is no chance that this will pass. You will be fighting the ACC, which will argue that it is unconstitutional because it allows presbyteries to act in their trustee capacity in a way contrary to the best interests of the PC(USA) -- despite what the Constitution actually says, which you quote. You will be fighting [the powers that be]… You will be fighting most commissioners who want to go along to get along… Sorry to be a wet blanket, but I don't want you spending your time on this unless this is a number one issue for you.You know what – he was absolutely, 100% right… it was silly, impractical, and impossible. And you know what else? I went ahead anyway. I don’t know that I have ever been so convicted that I had something of the Lord that needed to be said. At that moment, I could relate to the boy with the five loaves and two fish!
Giving Up Control
This brings me to the significant spiritual lesson I experienced. At every point – every point – common sense would have told me to quit. I had more important work to do and could have contributed significantly there. As my friend told me, even getting the resolution approved was a long shot that required much follow-up on my part. It would then go to a committee to be debated and given a thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendation to the whole Assembly. And then the Assembly would debate and respond, or perhaps just rush through it without debate as happened when commissioners got tired and it was late in the day with hundreds more overtures to approve.
Throughout all this, I became increasingly aware of the need to pray. The matter was out of my control, beyond my skills, facing seemingly insurmountable hurdles, and yet I felt that the Lord wanted me to persevere.
In addition to praying more and more, the most interesting thing happened. I skipped several meals. Let me say that I never, ever forget to eat. Nor did I wake up and think, “Today I will fast and pray for the Lord’s will.” I have fasted before with youth programs like the “30-hour famine.” I have fasted and prayed as part of a church-wide prayer vigil. But this was different. This was fasting and praying out of the desperation and need of the moment. It didn’t occur to me until later to describe it as fasting. I simply reached the lunch break, knew I was going to be speaking to my resolution, and knew that the thing I needed most was God’s help and blessing, so I found a quiet spot and prayed. This happened during at least four different meals. I don’t say that to highlight my own spirituality. Trust me when I say I’m no superstar. I don’t say it to indicate some new technique to manipulate God or work a deal for His blessing. What I am sharing with you is that I experienced a level of dependency on God out of need in the context of pursuing His will that was new for me, and I saw God’s power and presence as I continued in this way.
I also don’t know exactly how to appropriate that experience for you or me in daily life. There is value, of course, in prayer and fasting as a spiritual discipline, but this was something else. This was sensing God’s direction on something, clinging to it tenaciously, yielding my own control and common sense, and throwing myself on God’s grace. In other words, if you find God is asking something of you, trust Him to give you what you need when you need it. Really, the rest is up to Him.
Now, it is tempting to end the story here. I do mean that the rest is up to Him. This is, after all, the story of something fully beyond my own control and capability. That makes it God’s story, and I cannot control how the story turns out.
But, I know you’d be interested in some of what I have seen so far.
Feeding Two Million?
The story of this vision and message that God laid on me has not come to an end. It appears to be out of my hands now, as I am only following up at this point on what the Lord began. And I don’t know how that story will end. But I can share with you a number of near-miraculous things happened around that resolution.
The first hurdle was, as my friend noted, making it past the stated clerk’s office. The clerk decided which commissioner’s resolutions were valid business and which ones weren’t. This resolution specifically called for a different stance than the one originating from the stated clerk who was deciding its fate. And yet, it got through.
The resolution was assigned to the church polity committee, the last item of business after a nine-hour discussion on whether or not to change the definition of marriage in church’s constitutional documents. These folks were worn out and more than a little combative. While the full Assembly would later vote definitively to keep the traditional definition of marriage, the church polity committee voted only 38-20 to do so. And I was called in and given 4 minutes to speak of grace and care for one another. After I did so, the committee called the denominational head legal counsel, who had authored the aggressively litigious policy currently in effect. He was the other chief denominational official the resolution specifically sought to counter. Miraculously, he spoke briefly and said, “Ending up in court is not working well for us.” Several on the committee spoke against the resolution, calling it idealistic, impractical, and naïve. And several said that it sounded like the Holy Spirit. When the vote was called, it passed 49-3.
The item was to come to the full Assembly on Friday of that week. And on Thursday, I got two surprises. The first was that another resolution came through another committee, calling on the denomination to establish a two million dollar legal defense fund, to be paid out of the mandatory per capita budget. I thought, “I could not have dreamed up something more exactly opposite to what I believe the Lord is trying to say through me.” And I was concerned that it was being considered before anyone had a chance to hear what I had to say. The second surprise was that because of the amount of business and limited time, the Assembly voted to shorten time at the microphone from 3 minutes to 2 minutes to 1 minute. My original (very succinct) 4-minute presentation to the committee now had to be done in 60 seconds!
When the legal defense resolution came up, I decided I’d at least get 60 seconds worth in and say some of what I had to say against litigation. I challenged folks in this way (the first 20 seconds worth):
There is an immeasurable cost to what this motion proposes. And brothers and sisters, that cost is not the two million dollars, which is inconceivable enough as we struggle to support our missionaries. The immeasurable cost is the damage done to real human beings in our midst and to our witness to Jesus Christ in the world as “Christians sue Christians.” Friends, there is a better way!That resolution ended up being amended in such a way that it has little to no effect. And the next day (Friday), I got another 60 seconds to describe what that “better way” might look like:
This resolution calls on [us] to be the initiators of GRACE. And beloved, grace is both unconditional and winsome. The resolution points us to the appropriate resources, but for this resolution to make any real difference, YOU will need to catch the spirit behind it and communicate it back to your presbytery and to your own church. Beloved, there is a better way! I ask you to vote yes not just to approve some words, but to embrace and carry home what I believe to be the wind of the Holy Spirit.The Assembly then voted and approved the resolution 519-157.
But God was not yet done with this word of grace. On Thursday of that same week, I got an aide appeared at my C-05 seat with a note from the new moderator of the PCUSA asking me to give the closing prayer on Friday night. This was the “last word” to the Assembly after the big day of discussion and voting on all the controversial issues. And I was given 60 more seconds to speak a third time of a better way.
From that prayer and resolution, God is opening doors with the leadership of the denomination and with presbyteries all over the country. People seem to be drawn to this idealistic and fragile grace as hope in the face of a denomination that seems to be imploding.
I don’t know how the story will end. If God desires to do more, He will do it. I certainly believe no less strongly in the need for biblical standards in the church or for speaking the truth and demonstrating faithfulness. But I also have some sense of what it must have been like that day when a young boy handed over five loaves and two fish and it was given to the Son of God.
As we move on in our life together, seeking God’s will and Word as a family of believers, I invite you to listen hard for God’s Spirit. As you get a sense of what God would do in and through your life, I encourage you to offer up all you are and all you have, and watch as God does far more than we could ask or imagine, for His glory and name. Amen.