BALTIMORE – “We are one body, whether we realize it or not.”
That’s how Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, started off her sermon Feb. 13 during worship at the start of a joint session of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.
Both Moffett and J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), preached – Moffett using as her text a passage from Acts and Nelson one from 1 Corinthians. Moffett called on Presbyterians to pay attention, as the early disciples did, in order to see God’s power sweeping through the world today and to join together to do God’s work, because “we are one in Jesus Christ.”
Nelson likened this struggle for unity to the wrangling that sometimes pops up in church politics: “There ain’t no PMA (Presbyterian Mission Agency) and there ain’t no OGA (Office of the General Assembly). We are one in the body of Christ. We are called to be one in the body of Christ. … We are Jesus people.”
Nelson said he thinks it’s no accident that the General Assembly met in St. Louis in 2018, and will meet in Baltimore June 20-27 and in Columbus, Ohio in 2020 – all places that have struggled with police shootings and economic injustice and crime.
These are “places where people are afraid to walk the street from the hotel to the convention center,” Nelson said, and in Baltimore, where children run behind cars in the streets. “They call them ‘squeegee kids’ … risking their own lives to clean a windshield,” because their families don’t have enough money to provide for basic needs.
People look at the PC(USA) and some see a church that’s had divisions, that has a lot of money, that some think is “too liberal,” Nelson said. He thinks of it this way: that “God sends us to a place of deprivation and damaged hope,” because Presbyterians are willing to work for justice.
After Presbyterians marched in downtown St. Louis at the 2018 assembly to raise money to end cash bail, a local man came up to Nelson and said three other church groups also had met in St. Louis that summer. “He started tearing up,” Nelson said. “And he said you all are the only ones who left anything with us.”
Nelson said the 2020 General Assembly, following the lead of the Committee on Local Arrangements, will focus on helping the “squeegee kids” as part of its public witness and as a beneficiary of offerings taken. “These children have been left behind,” Nelson said, in city with a deep divide – as in many places – between the haves and the have-nots. “So we go to the streets” – to stand with the kids.
Moffett said the church is one body, and “how we respond to others affects us” – to people at the border, descendants of those who were enslaved, people who are different from ourselves in gender, age, economics or other ways. “Polarization and disconnection has a way of destroying people,” Moffett said.
She preached of a church that’s a movement, not an institution –a place of koinonia, with a fellowship that “goes beyond potluck meals” to build on the vision of the first century church of a shared existential reality and the anticipation of what God will do.
“We see a vision of a unified church. It’s a connectional church – we Presbyterians know about that,” Moffett said. “The only canon is the life of Jesus.”
And the resurrection power of God is all around us – “it’s for right here and now,” Moffett said. Look for the signs and wonders, for the power of the Holy Spirit sweeping through the world, for the evidence that “God’s spirit is at work on the earth through feet of clay.”
That unity is nurtured by devotion to the Word; by koinonia – working together as geese fly in the same direction; and by prayer, which “changes everything,” Moffett said. “As my ancestors sang, ‘Just a little walk with Jesus makes it right.’ ”
Moffett said she has witnessed God bring healing; has seen the presence of Christ at death, “taking them from heartache to hallelujah.” The first church she served was $20,000 in debt when she got there, “and the church is still open today. I’ve seen God move when there wasn’t enough money at the end of the month.”
Knowing that “makes me want to praise God – to open my mouth like a trumpet and sing God’s praise,” Moffett said. “I’m not the only one. The early church did it too. … The same God that was with them is with us today.”
The co-moderators of the 2018 General Assembly, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann, presided over the communion table. The money given as the offering was collected will go to One Great Hour of Sharing.
Following worship, the policy-making boards would spend hours talking about the work of the church before adjourning Feb. 14. But they started with worship: with song, prayer, a call to remember God’s presence sweeping through the world.
“It’s time for the family to come back together,” Nelson said. “We work for the Lord.”