According to Robert Bowles, pastor of St. Andrew Church in Aptos, Calif., and moderator of the Committee on Local Arrangements for the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), this arrangement was chosen because no available place was big enough for the crowd, including congregants who traveled by bus, car, and foot from local Presbyterian churches.
“This is our trapeze act,” Bowles said a few days before the service. “It has never been done before. And if it doesn’t work, it’ll never happen again.”
Well, it worked (unlike the PC-biz system for handling business during the assembly’s plenary sessions, which has so far had some hiccups).
Some Presbyterians gathered at the Civic Auditorium, others at the San Jose State University Event Center. Much of the service was “live” at each – with choirs at each and prayers and Scripture readings. But when Moderator Joan S. Gray of the 217th General Assembly preached from the 13th chapter of John’s gospel – a sermon called “The Impossible Commandment” — “you love one another as I have loved you” — she spoke at San Jose State University, with her words transmitted by satellite to the other site.
And the commissioning of the PC(USA)’s international mission co-workers and volunteers who are being sent into service, and recognition of those retiring from service and those serving as Presbyterian military and Veterans Administration chaplains, and of ecumenical and global partners attending this assembly, all took place at the Civic Auditorium.
The service featured some classic elements of a big Presbyterian worship service – trumpets, organ, bagpipers, massed choirs, an opening procession and glorious classical music – and also, at the San Jose State University site, an “event staff” standing at each exit in bright yellow windbreakers.
Before the service began, a worship leader explained how the two-site system would work – with the honest caveat that there might be some “non-liturgical pauses” for synchronization purposes. At those times, he said, “we suggest that you lift your hearts in prayer and not your voices in conversation.”
Gray, however, preached to them all – saying that after she was elected two years ago, she asked God what message she should bring to the church and kept hearing back: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
She resisted, because “it seemed so kindergarten, it seemed so simplistic.”
Then she started thinking, as a pastor, of people in churches she’d served who were easy to love (the woman with cancer who made Gray promise, before she left town on a much-needed vacation, that Gray would not rush back to perform the funeral if she died while Gray was gone).
And she thought of those who were hard to love – the crotchety ones who so easily take offense.
How did Jesus love us? Gray asked. He emptied himself, “let go of a lot,” came into the room with us, listened to us, “breathed the air we breathe. He sat down to eat with us.”
Can Presbyterians do that? she asked. “It’s so much easier to clump into our little groups,” bunched up with those we already like or with whom we agree.
But Jesus loved with an “in-spite-of love,” Gray said. And as Christians, “we are to be engaged in a super-human enterprise,” to be powered by God, not our own strength.
Gray challenged this General Assembly to remember, “God is still in the business of doing amazing things. God can help us lay hold of each other with an in-spite-of love. If we fail now … it will be a failure of faith, a failure of imagination. The time is now to lay hold of … the power of God, so we can be people who love one another in the midst of a broken, hurting, hating world.”
Gray said she knows “God makes a way where there is no way. God can do it. The question is, `Do we want it? Do we want it?’ ”
She paused, silent, waiting for an answer.