SEATTLE – J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is challenging Presbyterians to “gravitate to an ethos of possibility and hope,” and to open the doors of the churches to those who may not look like those who are already there – in essence, to represent Jesus.
Nelson preached Jan. 16 at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church in Washington, during a meeting of Seattle Presbytery – using as his texts the Isaiah 43 and the story of the prodigal son from Luke’s Gospel.
The Way Forward Commission will be meeting at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Seattle on Jan. 17-19, and commission members scheduled their work to leave time to attend the presbytery meeting as observers and to hear Nelson preach. Eliana Maxim, one of the commission’s two vice moderators, serves as associate executive presbyter for Seattle Presbytery.
Nelson told the presbytery he’d just come from a much colder Minneapolis, where he preached on Jan. 14 at Westminster Presbyterian Church – a large church that which is completing a massive, ambitious renovation project.
Now that urban congregation is wrestling with “how to do the right thing with what we have,” Nelson said — challenging itself to open the doors on weekdays so homeless people can sleep in the pews, to consider how those experiencing poverty can be fed and housed.
“They are saying they want to bring people in here not smelling like we smell on Sunday, not looking like we look on Sunday,” people who may never join the church, he said. They’re doing it “because we know and believe it’s the righteous thing to do” – that “we can’t build this for ourselves.”
Some of those struggling to find meaning, to find a way, are in our own families, Nelson said. “We are called to be their community.”
The PC(USA) is called “not just to be the empire church” but to represent those who may have no hope, showing them how to “turn to the living God in trust,” he said. “We have to take the veil off of the dirtiness of what the empire has created and begin to engage it frontally as a church, call it out,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he hopes to challenge the 2018 General Assembly, which will be held June 16-23 in St. Louis, to pay attention to issues rising up in St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio – the next three cities where the assembly will be held. And he sees this assembly as an opportunity for a “teach-in” on the ways in which Presbyterians can be involved in their own communities on issues such as racial injustice, police shootings, incarceration and for-profit prisons.
Nelson asked: What if the offering collected at the first General Assembly worship service were used to bail out people who were arrested for minor misdemeanor charges and then kept in jail? What if that money were used to bail those prisoners out, and Presbyterians stood outside cheering as they were released, so they can return home “to somebody who loves them?”
If that happens, when the General Assembly adjourns, “they’ll know how to spell Presbyterian when we leave,” Nelson said.
He also challenged people to look at who’s not mentioned in the text – for example, the mother in the story of the prodigal son. “This is what we have to do in unpacking Scripture,” Nelson said – to ask “who’s omitted from the text in a day in which women are saying #MeToo” and immigrants are being deported. That means “looking to see who is omitted from the text and preaching into their reality, that we might begin to see clearly the possibility of God’s calling for us all.”
Nelson also urged Presbyterians not to get caught up in anxiety over loss – over declining membership, declining power. “1.3 million is not a bad number,” he said, referring to the PC(USA)’s current membership.
A church beset by worry needs to remember this: “The church belongs to the Lord, and we belong to the Lord also,” Nelson said.
As he travels across the denomination – making 102 trips in the last 16 months – he reminds people that “the church does belong to God and it is here not because of our doing, but because of the grace we have been afforded. … What we are going to do is trust that the Lord will make a way, somehow.”
While calling the church at the national levels to be bold, Nelson also spoke of how that call extends to small corner churches and those in rural areas.
“He represents us,” Maxim said in introducing Nelson and explaining the role of stated clerk. “He is us. When he goes out among the churches around the world, he is representing all of us.”
This is crunch time for the Way Forward Commission and for other groups doing big-picture work in the church – the commission’s deadline for making its recommendation to the 2018 General Assembly is Feb. 16.
The presbytery meeting served as a reminder of grassroots ministry in the PC(USA) – with prayers being offered for a mission team from the presbytery traveling soon to Colombia to deepen an ongoing partnership with a presbytery there and for the work Alexis Ruhumuriza is doing with New Hope Revival, part the 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative.
This is hard, significant work — as Nelson said, “The church belongs to the Lord.” The first hymn sung during the presbytery’s worship service was “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”