Spirited worship follows spirited assembly debate

ST. LOUIS – Following more than two hours of spirited debate over how the church should respond to climate change and fossil fuels, the General Assembly moved into a spirited worship service.

The worship started with all gathered singing a hymn in unison that included the lyrics, “We are refugees together; all are wanderers welcomed home, greeted by God’s open arms with each unique but none alone.” The text for the hymn, “Draw the Welcome Circle Wider,” was commissioned for the 223rdGeneral Assembly and was also sung during opening worship.

Photo credit: David Gambrell

Following the call to worship, those gathered sang the classic hymn “Holy God We Praise Your Name.” Karl Hauser, pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Crestwood, Missouri, led the call to confession, the prayer of confession, and the assurance of forgiveness, drawn from the new Book of Common Worship. Hauser swirled his hands through the water in the baptismal font during the assurance of forgiveness, continuing the theme of water that has flowed through all of the worship services. A microphone was placed at the baptismal font to capture the sounds of water throughout the assembly.

The Scriptures read included John 17:20-23 and Luke 9:23-25, which both quote Jesus focusing on the theme of unity. Following the Scriptures, Don Meeks, pastor of Greenwich Presbyterian in Nokesville, Virginia, preached a sermon titled, “A modest attempt at cultivating unity in the church.” Meeks contrasted his preaching style to that of Floretta Barbee-Watkins who preached yesterday and used biscuits as a sermon illustration. He said, “I am more of a brisket style of preaching, think low and slow.”

Meeks invoked the 221stGeneral Assembly in Detroit and the decision that was taken around same-sex marriage. He shared about his pastor friend, Jeff Krehbiel, who had walked with Meeks and his congregation through this decision. They were working through the presbytery at a “modest attempt at cultivating unity.” He acknowledged that while minds weren’t changed on the particular issue, hearts were changed by the shared call to unity.

Meeks posed the questions: Are we willing to work across the divide? Are we willing to walk into the tension? Are we willing to, in the words of Jesus, take up our cross and follow him?

Meeks remarked that Jesus prays for our unity because he knows that the world is always watching how his people treat each other. He asked: Are we offering a living alternative to contempt these days? Are we extending a winsome invitation towards angry and dissenting neighbors? I have become convinced that the cultural moment we are living in has provided us an unprecedented moment to be a witness to a faithful unity.

Meeks presented a five-point covenant that he called, “My covenant for pursuing unity in times of disagreement” that was distributed to all gathered on colorful cards:

  • In light of John 17:20-23 I will pray for and live towards unity with other Christians.
  • In light of Matthew 7:3-5 I will acknowledge my own prejudices, excesses and failing before I attempt to criticize or correct other Christians.
  • In light of Romans 12:10, 18 I will trust that the intentions of those with whom I disagree are honorable, and speak the best of what I see in their efforts to serve Jesus Christ.
  • In light of Proverbs 18:13 and James 1:19 I will seek to listen with understanding before speaking my own concerns.
  • In light of 1 Peter 3:15 I will contend for my convictions with gentleness and respect out of reverence for Jesus Christ.

Meeks closed his sermon by saying, “We know how profoundly fractured our communities and even our churches are … . This covenant is a modest attempt to turn Jesus’ prayer of unity into a reality. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Following the sermon, the assembly sang “For Everyone Born,” a hymn from New Zealand that is found in the “Glory to God” hymnal that includes the lyrics, “God will delight when we are creators of justice, joy, compassion and peace.”

The communion liturgy was also drawn from the new “Book of Common Worship” and included a focus on both the baptismal font and the celebrants moving their hands through the water and talking about the living water from John 7 as they broke the bread and shared the cup.

The closing charge, led by Rebecca Barnes, a ruling elder from Second Presbyterian Church of St. Louis, was excerpted from the The Confession of Belhar, adapted for use by Christopher Keating.