Encountering the Triune God in the Gateway City: General Assembly opening worship

Waters of baptism: Bringing the community together, calling them forward

“We believe that worship shapes the ministry of the church as it engages the gospel’s call to prophetic witness … we hope you will experience how God is working among us, calling us forward to a fuller experience of the kin-dom, while we are challenged, in the words of Mary Louise Bringle’s hymn, to ‘draw the welcome circle wider.’” With these words, the worship team for General Assembly framed the worship experience for those gathered for opening worship of the 223rdGeneral Assembly on Saturday, June 16.

Susan Andrews, convener of the opening worship design team said: “The main focus for opening worship is the waters of baptism bringing us together and calling us forward. The Joshua text chosen by the co-moderators reminds us that Moses is dead, but that God calls the people across the river into a new future and three times we are called to be ‘strong and courageous.’ “

Following the gathering music, which included music by a brass quintet, organ and timpani, representatives of several local congregations who embody the diversity of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy processed as water bearers to fill up the central baptismal font. They were accompanied by Handel’s “Water Music.”

Imagery of water and rivers was prominently featured throughout the service including in the prayer of confession, the prayer for illumination, the anthem sung by the Assembly Choir, “Shall We Gather at the River?” and the musical response to the sermon, “Wade in the Water” sung by soloist Jennifer Kelley.

Be strong and courageous: Joshua 1

Co-moderators of the 222ndGeneral Assembly, Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, preached a sermon based on Joshua 1:1-9. They acknowledged the challenges present in the text and they connected those challenges to the many tragedies that occurred during their term of the last two years including mass shootings, hurricanes and others. They reminded the assembly that God is ever present, even in the midst of these challenges. They called the assembly to meditate and reflect on God’s love and to live their lives in the “way of God.”

Anderson shared an illustration from her travels to Rwanda during her term as co-moderator, and spoke of the remarkable reconciliation that is occurring between the Hutus and Tutsis. Edmiston shared a story from her travels to Lebanon. The church in Lebanon defined success not by people in the pews, but by the impact they were making in their city, particularly among the poor and Syrian refugees. Edmiston also reminded those gathered of their shared call to reconciliation, particularly racial reconciliation. Edmiston and Anderson shared stories of churches they visited during their term as co-moderators that redefined success from budgets and attendance to seeking justice and reaching out to the marginalized in their communities. They challenged the assembly to prophetic witness and invoked hope, strength and courage — setting the tone for the assembly.

Sharing of gifts, breaking of bread

The offering was presided over by J. Herbert Nelson, the stated clerk of the PC(USA). Money collected during the opening worship service will go to local bail relief organizations. Working with local networks in St. Louis, the Arch City Defenders and the Bail Project, the offering will purchase freedom for people held under bench warrants and minor offenses as they await trial.  It gets them back to their jobs, to their families and to their communities, Nelson said.

Communion was presided over by Anderson and Edmiston with a Eucharistic liturgy from the new Book of Common Worship. Communion was served by intinction with 12 stations staffed by local members of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy. The choir led the communion music with the songs “Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table” and “Day of Arising.”

The worship service closed with a blessing read by youth from the presbytery. They invited the assembly: “Come, wade in the water. Come, press forward. Come, be strong and courageous in the kin-dom of God. This we pray in the justice and joy of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Celebrating diversity of gifts

The service included a 250-voice Assembly Choir, instrumentalists from the St. Louis Symphony, a reader’s theater proclaiming the Scripture, the co-moderators sharing the sermon, liturgical dance and a Native American flute.

Another one of the worship team leaders, Susan Niesen, said, “We have been intentional in integrating a baptismal framework into experiences of worship this week — from the centrality of water imagery throughout, to recalling baptism as the basis for our journeys of discipleship — to a call to service as commissioner, as moderator and to the affirmations of baptism made complete in death as we observe the necrology on Saturday evening.”

Erin Counihan, another member of the worship design team, contributed to the tone of the opening worship service with original liturgical material, as well as being one of the primary architects and advocates for the Hands and Feet initiatives, including the choice of the offering.

Chad Herring and Sudie Niesen Thompson served as liturgists for the confession and assurance of forgiveness. They were selected for this because they both grew up in congregations in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy and now both serve as pastors in Presbyterian congregations.

The opening worship sought to employ expansive language of God and inclusive language about people. The goal was to model faithful and vibrant worship: worship that reflects both tradition and creativity, worship that creates space where each finds a sense of home. The liturgists and music were intentionally chosen to reflect the diversity of the presbytery.