Click here for General Assembly coverage

A time of great reformation: J. Herbert Nelson preaches a vision for the PC(USA)

J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), preached Nov. 2 in a Reformation Season worship service in the chapel at the denomination’s national offices in Louisville, Kentucky. The sermon was titled “Write the Vision – Reclaim the Call.”

J Herbert Nelson portrait2The intent had been to live-stream the worship service for Presbyterians to watch as it took place, but technical difficulties disrupted the feed. A video of the service is now available online.

Here are some excerpts from Nelson’s sermon, drawn from the Old Testament reading of Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4, and, from the New Testament, the 19th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, verses 1-10.

Nelson said of the PC(USA): “We are in need of another Reformation.”

When the prophet Habakkuk cried out to God, the people of Judea were facing a crisis and “people were asking ‘Where is God? Where is God?’ I believe people are asking the same question (today) at a time when (there are) threats of war, terrorism, racism, sexism, poverty in the midst of plenty, indifference towards differences, children being taught to get under the desks to avoid being killed in the classroom, the same question is being raised in the midst of our personhood being threatened, judgments on personhood being rendered by votes on the floor of the General Assembly. Come on, people. It’s time for a reformation of heart, word and deed regarding our allegiance to God, which leads to our allegiance to one another.”

“I want to suggest that lament is good. It frees us of the stuff that represents faithlessness in our lives. We get a chance to purge ourselves of all that internal anxiety. However, the danger of lament is that we can allow it to be a chorus of our everyday existence. Thus we are weighed down from any real spiritual or supernatural claims, because our soul is depleted by the continuous cry of self-pity and failure to acknowledge the power, presence and possibilities of God Almighty. I am convinced this is the core of our struggle as Presbyterians. We are still lamenting the changes in the world and the loss of the church we once knew. Still lamenting that things aren’t the way they used to be. News flash. News flash. They’re not going back. We need to prayerfully claim the promises that God has already given to us and use those as an impetus to move forward, claiming and declaring that this mystery called life is worth engaging in…By the power of the Holy Spirit simply living into the mystery, living into it with the faith that God can do anything and everything with faith.”

“We must become a praying community again. Prayer is the source of our power that overcomes lament. Our lacking of what we need in the face of God’s abundance is representative of our failure to acknowledge fully the power of God to assist us in overcoming all of our struggles. Conventional wisdom alone will not make us the church. A Book of Order alone will not make us the church. A judicial process alone will not make us a church. More money alone will not make us a church. All of these things can do something for us, but they can’t do what the Lord will do. They can’t turn around what prayer can turn around. We are the church when we are collectively giving our whole being over to the Lord God. … Prayer must be at the core of our formation as a people of faith. To move beyond our present state of lament, we must invite God through Jesus Christ into our planning, our participation and our practice.”

Habakkuk moves from lament to saying, “My God, my holy one, we will not die. We will not die. Wow. The world is falling apart. Faith is being put to shame. People are claiming the word, but the word is not coming back…Yet in the midst of it all he breaks out of his stupor, breaks out of his moment of distress, an has a personal pep rally before the Lord” and says “my God, my holy one, we will not die. We will not die. Stop this talk about a dying church. Stop this talk about we are dying. Your church might be dying. But the church of Jesus Christ will never die. It is when Habakkuk takes his mind off of himself and puts it on the power of the Lord that the prophet comes out of Habakkuk. … The prophet has a vision that is on the liberation of God’s people. … Putting our minds on the liberation of God’s people is at the core of the prophetic witness.”

Years ago, in Memphis, Nelson served as the fourth organizing pastor in four years of a new church development.

“Can you imagine being a pastor after three failed attempts to start a new church development, whose mission was to evangelize the poor?” That ministry at Liberation Community Church in Memphis “still stands, 22 years after its initial attempt to start a ministry to the poor and with the poor in that city in 1994. … Faith is the only translation of that type of story. Still working with the unchurched poor, still small in number, still operating on a shoestring budget. Oh, but we digress somewhere. In my Bible it says the righteous will never be forsaken. We must stop measuring the value of our ministry by the size of our bank accounts or an apparently successful megachurch model. I have witnessed successful congregations of people both large and small make a difference in the lives of whole communities of people because they had the will to do what needed to be done before the Lord. I’ve also seen congregations both large and small fail to be the difference that God called them to be because they stopped, they gave up, they got caught up in themselves. And they lost sight of who God was. I am convinced that we can be a denomination that is reborn, that is Reformed. I am convinced that we can ride on the power of Jesus’ joy in all things and once again reclaim the rudiments of a new confession to live as to how God wants us to live in the 21st century.”

“In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it’s a time of great reformation. What are the visions that we see for ourselves? What are the visions we see for our church? What are the visions we see for the kingdom of God?”

“We have a challenge, but we’ve got to begin with prayer and giving ourselves over to God. Not our agenda, but God’s agenda we must seek.”

As the PC(USA) prepares for the next three General Assemblies, in St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio, the denomination’s leaders will work collaboratively to “go out into the communities, taking the best of what we have in on the ground work, in training and teaching, to invade a city all year long, to bring volunteers from across the country, to converge on the city where we will be having our next General Assembly in St. Louis” to build housing, to plant community gardens, to strengthen the fabric of the community, to love one another.

“I pray that we do not go into another city as commerce goes, spending money, sleeping in expensive hotels, and then leaving the city as barren when we leave it as it was when we came. These three cities – St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus – are all challenged by racial divisions; all challenged by policing; all challenged by a contextual reality of poverty; all challenged to try to move from the gutter-most to the uttermost. And we have a chance to be a redeeming factor as a denomination. Hands and feet, we call it. … In the power of God, it’s possible to change whole communities.”

“No longer can we walk separately. We must close ranks, my friends,” with the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency working collaboratively. “Some of that is happening, but we must do more,” making the national offices of the PC(USA) “the religious center of mid-Kentucky and Indiana” and a place of ecumenical and interfaith witness.

“I believe that’s possible. What it will take is our will to become that. What it will take is modeling here in Louisville what it means to be the church throughout the country. What it will take is the church throughout the country, the churches all across this place, modeling what it means to be faith communities that demonstrate the power of not just receiving but giving, not just giving but receiving. We are not separated as a witness. We are only separated by structure. And structure is on paper. The witness is in our heart. We must learn to work together at every level of this denomination – mid councils; those who have feet on the ground every day in local communities and church houses and other ministries; and those of us here in Louisville, Kentucky to broaden the face of Presbyterian witness across this nation and world, and give declaration to the fact that we ain’t dead.”

“As long as God is alive, we have power. As long as God is alive, we have strength. As long as God is alive, we are alive, and the world will know it. And they will know we are Christians by our love. By our love.”

“The question is whether we will receive what God is ready and willing to give. Open your hearts. Open your minds. Open your spirits.”