DENVER (Outlook) – Let peace take root in your soul and keep being the church, no matter what. With these words, Shannon Johnson Kershner closed worship and concluded the 2017 Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) annual national event in Denver on Jan 28.
Kershner urges church to focus on discipleship during plenary session
Kershner, senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, also gave the morning plenary of the conference prior to worship. Continuing on the conference theme of “God with us in the chaos,” she encouraged participants to focus specifically on the “chaotic winds hammering the church.”
“The way we tell our story and the way we interpret our story” influences how the church deals with change and chaos, she said during the plenary session. She recalled an interpretation of the church’s story of itself that “remembers” how mainline congregations once thrived, but now are dying. But, “the good old days were not good for everyone,” including people of color, women and the LGBTQ population, she said. “Were things the same, I wouldn’t be your speaker and Denise wouldn’t be your moderator,” she said, referring to the co-moderator of the 2016 General Assembly, Denise Anderson, who also was present.
However, Kershner noted that those in Christian education are in prime positions to change the content and tone of the church’s conversations, saying, “I don’t know anyone else better to help claim discipleship as the focus of our church than Christian educators.”
Referencing Brian McLaren’s book “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian,” Kershner noted the need for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to move from an organized religion to an organizing religion, and in so doing changing the core from a system of beliefs to a focal point on discipleship – a loving way of life guided by that faith.
“Who knows what God has in store for us?” she asked, concluding that the church must remain open to God’s activity.
Does Jesus even care? Worship considers Jesus’ response to the storm
In her sermon in the conference’s closing worship session, Kershner drew from Psalm 46 (“Be still and know that I am God”) and Mark 4 (Jesus calming the storm).
To set up the story from Mark’s Gospel, she reminded her listeners that the disciples had been with Jesus for a while and had gotten to know him a little bit. “He was a bit risky, but he was worth the risk,” she guessed they had decided by this point in the Gospel narrative. At the time of this story, they were going to the other side of the sea – the gentile side, which would have possibly been strange and foreign; and, she noted, they were going at night. Giving a reminder that these fishermen would have known the dangers of the sea and strange lands, she wondered if they thought that traveling with Jesus guaranteed a smooth ride.
When the storm arose, instead of asking Jesus to stop the storm, the disciples asked if Jesus cared. Kershner admitted that she had been thinking a lot of about this question “in this new season.” She recalled waking up to a Twitter storm, to hearing many voices saying that after eight years of absence God has finally returned to the White House, and to so many people digging themselves firmly into Facebook trenches. Kershner said, “I wonder: Jesus where are you? Do you care what’s happening?”
Kershner offered this reminder: Jesus looked into the face of chaos and evil and said “peace;” then Jesus turned to his disciples and asked, “Why are you afraid?” He contrasted their fear with faith, and “if fear is at our helm, we’re going to sink,” she said.
She offered this challenge: God welcomed all people and asked us to do the same; if fear takes over the helm, we won’t be who we are called to be – the church, the body of Christ.
“If we give into the fear of stepping on toes of folks who disagree with us, if we give into fear, the only thing that will claim victory is the chaos monster itself!” she said. Instead, she said, the church needs to lean into trusting that Jesus does indeed care.
Concluding, Kershner said that part of claiming victory in chaos is to remember “peace be still.” She called upon conference goers to travel back to their congregations and recommit to holding on to stubborn trust and being God’s “hardhats of hope. … For victory will be God’s. And all will be made well.”
Let peace take root in your soul, she said, and “keep being the church no matter what.”