It’s only the second Sunday of our series on “The Gospel According to the Beatles,” and by now you’ve figured out that we’re not going entirely in chronological order. We have skipped over three years and several albums to land firmly in their psychedelic period. Though I love their music, I don’t pretend to be a Beatles’ expert. When I listened to this album all the way through this week, I heard a couple of songs for the very first time. But I couldn’t help noticing the album takes you on an odyssey which includes plaintive, heartfelt songs such as “Fool on the Hill,” the slice of Liverpool life that is “Penny Lane,” and the trippy, most likely drug-influenced weirdness that is the universally loved, “I am the Walrus.”
But the last word of the album is “All You Need is Love.” Here, this British-invasion hit meets its New Testament match, from the first letter of John.
Beloved, let us love one another. Love, love, love. Both the Beatles and the writer of 1 John have good news for us, and it’s important to remember: anyone who has good news to share, thinks that things are actually looking pretty bad right now, so we are in need of Good News. That was certainly the position of the writer of this letter. He looked around at the lives of the people of the still fairly new Christian community, and he saw bad news. He saw people living in confusion about Jesus, starting to embrace the idea that Jesus never actually existed, but was merely a spirit, an illusion.[i] He also saw people living in conflict…conflict with the oppressive Roman government, of course, but also conflict within the Christian community itself. He saw people living without joy. This was all very bad news. And so this writer shared the good news: Jesus really was the love of God made flesh among us: Love is at the heart of God, and God is the heart of love. And that means: if we love one another, God lives in us. And if we don’t love one another… well, you get the picture.
John Lennon, the writer of this most excellent song, also saw a fractured world—a time of conflict between nations as well as generations, and he sought to send an absolutely clear, unmistakable message. When an interviewer asked Lennon about the song, he replied, “I'm a revolutionary artist. My art is dedicated to change.” Only love was going to change this fractured world. Love was everything. All you need is love.
When I’ve thought about sharing with you my experience at the 223rd General Assembly, I’ve come back to the good news of both these pieces. I mentioned last week that, in the week or so leading up to GA, I had some misgivings, even some anxiety about my trip. On reflection, I have realized that, at the heart of that anxiety was my prior trip to GA in 2001, when I went as a student advisory delegate. Back then I was assigned to a committee that, not only was at the heart of a huge church-wide conflict, but which also divided, immediately, into two camps, broken down by which side of that conflict they were on. It was… a learning experience.
My experience of this year’s GA couldn’t have been more different. The Susquehanna Valley delegation arrived in St. Louis on Friday June 15 in a bone-melting heat index of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. But this time, my experience of the Assembly was not of being in the crucible of conflict, but rather, of being held in a wonderful, joyful community that sought, at every turn, to let the love of Jesus Christ be reflected in every conversation we had, and in every vote we took.
Early in the Assembly we heard a report from the Vision 2020 team, one of two groups seeking to restructure our denomination so that it will do its work more efficiently and effectively, while at the same time keeping the gospel as our foundation. The 2020 team offered a fairly simple but memorable set of words to guide our work. Keeping in mind that our church is the Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA, it was suggested that we Presbyterians should strive to be:
Prayerful… Courageous… United…Serving… and Alive!
Prayerful. Throughout the Assembly, we were indeed prayerful. Every day, whether we were meeting as a group of 538 commissioners (plus advisory delegates and observers, which brought our numbers to about 1000), we bookended our days with prayer and worship. There is something unbelievably powerful about joining your voice to nearly a thousand others in song and praise. There is something about it that lifts you up… reminds you that the life of faith is not, and was never intended to be, a solitary journey. Jesus didn’t call people to worship God alone, he called them—and us—into community. And an assembly that gathers people, not only from all over our nation, but also from all over the world, reminds us that we don’t have the a corner on the market of God’s love: it is for all.
Every day in our worship, we remembered our baptism, much as we do here at UPC. Every day, someone—sometimes, many people—walked to the font and poured in water as worship began, a reminder that God has claimed us in that sacrament. And every day, after we said our prayer of confession/ new life, the assurance of God’s love was proclaimed from beside the font. Every day, we were reminded that our faith depends, not on our loving God, but on the fact that God loves us. Every day, God’s love was shown in the sacrament of the table, as well: the Lord’s Supper. Every day, we were reminded, again and again, that love is all we need.
Courageous. Beloved, let me tell you: Presbyterians are a courageous bunch. Their courage showed itself in the ways they expressed the love of God… in the ways they felt called to respond to that love. There was the group of Presbyterians walked to St. Louis from Louisville, Kentucky, the home of the PCUSA’s administrative offices. They did this as a witness on behalf of a piece of business that has come to every General Assembly for the last six years: a request that we divest ourselves of all stock in companies related to the fossil fuel industry, because every year, now, the global climate change caused by our overuse of fossil fuels is responsible for 5,000,000 deaths, and they think maybe the church should not be profiting from that industry, just as decades ago we decided not to profit from the tobacco industry. So they walked 223 miles to the 223rd General Assembly, and when they arrived, they set up a space in the Assembly hall where they danced and sang: This is the day that the Lord has made! Their witness was not only courageous: it was joyful.
Another powerful and courageous witness took place as we sought to relieve the suffering and indignity of those who are too poor to pay their bail. Did you know that 90% of those in jail in our country—including the Broome County Jail—are awaiting trial in jail because they are too poor to be able to wait at home? And of course, they lose jobs because of that, and their lives become even more complicated, chaotic, and unstable. In our opening worship, we took a freewill offering that amounted to $47,000, and climbed to $54,000 during the week. On Tuesday the 19th, Presbyterians joined forces with local clergy and activists to deliver that money to the St. Louis Justice Center, for the purpose of bailing out nonviolent offenders, so that they could await trial at home. There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done, for God is love.
There were so many stories of courage at the General Assembly… the kind of courage that lifts up Jesus’ insistence that we care for the smallest and most vulnerable; the kind of courage that insists that all people are made in God’s image, precious and beloved. Sometimes courage looks like a Young Adult Advisory Delegate coming out as bi on the floor of the assembly, and immediately being surrounded by his peers in love and encouragement. Sometimes courage looks like a U. S. Navy chaplain being lowered by helicopter onto the deck of a damaged destroyer that is taking on water, not knowing whether they are being lowered to their death. Sometimes courage looks like sitting in a prison cell because you are a leader in a movement trying to establish the truth that #blacklivesmatter, and God’s children of every color are equally deserving of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This General Assembly began the process of discerning whether we would add Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to our Book of Confessions. And sometimes courage looks like witness following a lost vote on the General Assembly floor, when you stage a several-hours-long die-in to drive home the message that what you are advocating for is a matter of life and death.
United. During GA 223 we were united in so many ways… We united in trying to lift the voice of the church on the side of peace and justice. We were united in working together to beautify God’s world. We were united in giving thanks to God for the work and witness of our outgoing co-moderators, Teaching Elders Jan Edmiston and Denise Anderson, and in embracing and welcoming to this work our new co-moderators, Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri from the Presbytery of Tropical Florida (our first ever moderator from Puerto Rico) and Teaching Elder Cindy Kohlmann from the Presbyteries of Boston and Northern New England. The committee on which I served was united—unanimous—in every action it sent to the assembly, and the assembly itself was largely united in its decision-making, with very few split votes. And we were united in our intention to witness to the world that God is love, and God’s people are all deserving of equal dignity, whether in action, in advocacy, or in worship.
Serving. General Assembly is all about serving. Our co-moderators led us throughout this week, though it was only the beginning of their service. For the next two years, until General Assembly 224 gathers in Baltimore, MD, they will travel the church, going to as many presbyteries and congregations as they are able to visit, bringing pastoral care, their gifts and talents, and, always, the good news of God’s love. Our Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson III, is the first African American to head our denomination in that role, and just like a clerk of Session, he advised us on process throughout our work together, and is responsible for the minutes of our gathering. He is also the public face of the PCUSA, representing the church on various denominational and ecumenical councils, witnessing on behalf of the church to social justice issues, and making statements as directed by an assembly. We serve on our committees, and the moderators of our committees do work that begins long before the assembly and continues long after.
But our service means nothing if it is not infused with love. We love and serve because we have been loved by our servant Lord. We serve one another at table, and we serve our neighbors by offering them the love of God.
Alive. And if we are doing all the above… if we are engaged in the work of our faith prayerfully, and courageously, and united as one, and with hearts focused on service… we will discover that this work enables us to be vibrantly, joyfully alive. From the youngest Presbyterians to our elders (in work and in wisdom), the assembly drove this point home, whether through worship, through communal art projects, through meaningful and respectful debate and dialogue, even through breaks in our work in which God’s people got up and danced… at least one time, to the Beatles. Through it all, we were enlivened by the conviction that the Spirit of God was truly among us. As we drove or flew home I have no doubt in my mind we were all tired. It was a very full week. At the same time, speaking for myself, I was also rejuvenated by the love of God I was able to witness, firsthand, in the work we were called to do together. I returned to you more convinced than ever that the God is truly in this place, too, as we strive to serve to God, and one another, and our neighbors, and our world, all in the confidence that God is love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.