Jacob, Esau and the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA)

GA221 Communion Ware(The following is the prepared text of a sermon delivered at First Presbyterian Church, Morgantown, WV., on Sunday, July 13, 2014, based upon Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112 and Romans 8:1-11.)

The Lord be with you. It is always a pleasure, albeit a daunting one, to step into this or and any pulpit. But I trust that whatever is from God will stick, and the rest will disappear, so I’m glad to not be in control of how you hear the message.

I am one of those who, when asked to lead worship, immediately heads for the Revised Common Lectionary to see what the selected readings for the day are. But I also am not adverse to straying from the Lectionary should it seem necessary or appropriate, for example to address some large or ongoing topic in the life of the church, community or world.

Recognizing that last month I spent 10 days in Detroit, at the 221st General Assembly of our denomination – which in case you haven’t heard, made some pretty significant and controversial decisions, and if you have heard, I wouldn’t necessarily be assured you heard the straight news. Having been deeply involved in communicating what was going on to the commissioners at the Assembly, and also outside the walls of Cobo Hall, I more or less assumed that’s the direction my sermon would take – sort of a “report from the Assembly.”

Still, since my process is to go to the Lectionary first, that’s what I did. Now I realize that sometimes we see what we want to in Scripture, or put more generously, how we interpret what we read is tied closely to what we’re experiencing at the time – our frame of mind, if you will. It’s why, for example, that it’s important and useful to reread even very familiar pieces of Scripture many times because what they have to say to us can be – no IS – very dependent on what we bring to each individual time we read it. A pastor friend puts it this way, “You don’t read the Bible, the Bible reads you.”

So maybe it’s no surprise that as I read the lectionary texts for today, the General Assembly, and our reaction to the decisions made there, came immediately to mind.

So, happily, I get to use the Lectionary, and current events – funny how it often turns out that way.

Let’s first turn to Genesis 25:19-34, the beginnings of the story of Jacob and Esau. Listen for what the Spirit is saying to the church:

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddanaram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright

The word of the Lord for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

As most of you are likely aware, a significant issue over the past 30 or more years in the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been how it approaches the many issues surrounding sexuality. Some have argued that the basic argument is really over one of scriptural authority. So, it is again appropriate that the Lectionary for today includes Psalm 119:105-112. So today we will sing a hymn based on that text: Thy Word, Glory to God #458

And finally, one reading from the New Testament, Romans 8:1-11.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do; by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Please join me in prayer, O Lord, may the words of my mouth and meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight. O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

There were really two issues at the General Assembly in Detroit that grabbed the secular and religious headlines – sex and the Middle East. But there were lots of other things done and decided upon that weren’t so spectacular, but that you still need to hear about – and before we’re done I’ll talk a bit about those.

But first …

As I said, the PC(USA) has been arguing about sexuality since at least 1978 – well actually before that, but that’s when the discussions and actions reached the floor of the General Assembly – the highest governing body of the denomination. That year the Assembly issued what was then called a Definitive Guidance, but now is termed Authoritative Interpretation. Those come about when there is a question about how the Book of Order, one-half of our constitution, is to be applied. It’s not a judicial case, but a question asked, saying more or less, “What does this mean?” or “How is this to be applied?” Remember the words “authoritative interpretation.”

Two presbyteries asked the General Assembly of the northern church essentially what to do about homosexuals, “(s)pecifically, the presbyteries seek guidance on the matter of ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.”[i] The phrase used then was “self-affirming, practicing homosexuals.” The guidance from the 1978 Assembly? “(U)nrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination.”[ii]

The southern church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.), took the same tact, and adopted similar language the next year. This meant that no one who was “out” and sexually active could be a minister, elder or deacon.

That does not mean there were no “unrepentant, self-affirming, practicing” gays and lesbians who were ministers, elders or deacons. It just meant they were either underground, or battling the establishment.

Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.

All that came to a head in Albuquerque in 1996 with the adoption of G-6.0106(b), a paragraph in the Book of Order saying:

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

While the language was carefully crafted to not specifically target gays and lesbians – “any practice … which the confessions call sin,” for example – everyone on both sides of the issue knew what the underlying goal was. And there were lots of problems with that language – the confessions call a lot of things sin which we no longer consider such – women in the pulpit, for one.

A majority of presbyteries approved the language and while virtually every Assembly since 1996 dealt with efforts to amend the language to be more inclusive, many even resulting in proposed changes to the Book of Order, it wasn’t until 2011 that those efforts were successful.

The so-called “fidelity and chastity” language was replaced with this:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

This opened the door to the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians to church office, and in my judgment has led to a church more reflective of Christ’s teaching.

While the debate continued over who could serve as an officer, there was a similar, if newer, debate on whether the church would permit its ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages. For years, the denomination said its ministers could not officiate at, nor its property be used for, same-sex marriages. Civil unions were OK, but not marriages.

This led to a farce in which ceremonies looking and sounding in every way like a marriage ceremony were conducted, but weren’t called marriages, ’cause that would put churches and ministers afoul of church law.

All the while, society at large was shifting, and state after state dropped the ban on same-sex marriages – at this point 19 and more to come (indeed one more joined this list within the past couple of weeks). This put Presbyterian pastors in quite a predicament. By secular law, their gay parishioners could get married, but by church law, they could not participate in this very important ceremony. Many, however, did anyway, and there were some cases making their way through the church judicial system.

So the Detroit Assembly was asked to issue an authoritative interpretation, and, by a vote of 371-238, or 61 percent to 39 percent, the Assembly said where civil law permitted same-gender marriage, the decision was up to each pastor and each session.

The specific wording:

Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, so long as it is approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

So, where civil law allows same-gender marriages – which does not include West Virginia. Yet. – Presbyterian pastors and sessions can do as they feel led to do to minister to their parishioners. It’s also important to note that they are not required to do so. And because it is an authoritative interpretation, no vote of presbyteries is needed; it became the law of the church with the adjournment of the Assembly at noon, June 21, 2014.

While there are other Christian denominations that have taken this stance, notably the United Church of Christ and Quakers, the PC(U.S.A.) is by far the largest in this country.

A companion discussion was whether the definition of marriage should be changed. In our Directory for Worship, marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. The suggested change is to define marriage as being between two people, “traditionally a man and a woman.”

This does require approval by a majority of the 172 presbyteries over the next year; the Presbytery of West Virginia will vote early in 2015.

As you can imagine there was much celebration in some quarters, but there was also much distress in others.

Recognizing the potential impact this decision could have throughout the church, before the day was over, the three leaders of our denomination – Moderator Heath Rada, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, issued a pastoral letter which said in part:

Both decisions came with much thought, discussion and prayer, and clearly the entire body that is the PC(USA) will be interpreting these actions for some time. Please know that the same triune God in whom we place our hope, faith and trust in is still in control, and that the Assembly’s action today is the result of deep discernment to hear God’s voice and discern God’s will. … In this season of both happiness and sadness over the Assembly’s decisions, we call on you to remember the overflowing grace and love God gifts us with, and to take seriously our charge to bestow the same grace and love on one another.

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.

And while this decision was significant and important – and that’s really an understatement – it was not the one that got the most attention outside Cobo.

That would be the decision, by a mere seven votes, to divest from three United States corporations that have been judged to profit from violence in the Middle East – Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard.

Like the debate about human sexuality, this question has been with us for several years – although not 30.

These three companies all do business with the Israeli government and provide technology and/or equipment that is used in the occupation of the West Bank.

The debate pitted friends against friends, long-time allies were on opposite sides of the question. Some, especially in the Jewish community, claimed such a move was anti-Semitic and would negate and/or jeopardize decades of cooperation between our two faiths.

Hateful language and threats flew around Cobo Center. Some tried to say the church was “divesting from Israel,” which is preposterous: the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions continue to invest in many companies doing business in Israel, such as Coca-Cola, that do not directly profit from the occupation.

On the other side of the debate were voices calling on us to show support of Palestinians, many of whom are Christian, who live under the heavy-hand of Israeli occupation.

The church, recognizing that both sides in the struggle have legitimate concerns and complaints, remains committed to a two-state solution to the conflict, even though some opponents of divestment continue to claim differently.

Listen to some of the language from the rationale in support of divestment:

Our role, as a church, should be to support grassroots dialogue and bridge-building …, especially with young Palestinians and Israelis, and support positive economic cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli business enterprises. When such social and economic efforts are successful, both Palestinian and Israeli leaders are more empowered to take the risks necessary to achieve sustainable peace.

And there’s this:

Human rights must be a priority. A peaceful and secure Middle East is an equally important priority. Decisions balancing these essential priorities must be made thoughtfully and carefully, and, unfortunately, are not simple and easy. The faith community can play an important and constructive role, but only if all people of good will work together.

The amount of money is not huge – a total of about $21 million – but its symbolism IS huge. So much co that the decision was on the front page of The New York Times, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on NBC’s Meet the Press and called the move “disgraceful.” Elsewhere, he said it was unfair and misguided.

Social media, which as you may know can turn very ugly very fast, blew up with every imaginable curse – and praise – finding their way into the ether. Security was even tightened at the denominational headquarters in Louisville.

All of this was swirling through my mind when I first read Genesis 25, especially this – if you haven’t guessed by now: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

The Christian church is a family with many branches, and it’s been around for quite a while: as the sign out front says, “under the same management for 2,000 years.”

And like all families, we have differing opinions – sincerely and firmly held opinions. In many ways, it’s hard to believe that we all claim the same roots, the same Bible.

But that Bible is replete with dysfunction – and no where more so than in Genesis, the very first book. There are liars and cheats, murderers and philanderers, and time after time, it is the most unexpected one who becomes the champion of the faith, often the younger, newer, even weaker, person in the family. It starts with Abel, goes on to Jacob and David, and continues all the way to a manger in Bethlehem and a cross on Calvary.

But here’s what one commentator says about all that conflict, especially the sibling rivalry so prominent in Genesis: “They carry the underlying message that the most fundamental social conflicts cannot be resolved through violence but must be negotiated by peaceful means.”[iii]

Cain, though a murderer, is saved and protected; Jacob, though a conniver and cheat, becomes a patriarch of a nation; David, though the youngest brother, and the one who had Uriah killed so he could marry his wife, becomes the great king of Israel and author of many beloved Psalms that guide us today; and Jesus, though born to an unwed mother and executed in the most horrible way possible, turns everything around for the rest of all time.

“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death,” Paul writes in Romans. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”

Many want to interpret Paul’s reference to flesh to mean actions or behavior, but what he’s really referring to is not “physical acts (i.e. sex or eating) but to the fallen nature of Adam, thus humanity apart from grace.”[iv]

Paul continues, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. … If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Especially in the debate over sexuality, but also at the core of all of our most heated debates, is the question of scriptural authority. What do we believe the Bible teaches us, how does it tell us to behave, what does it tell us to do?

And here is the part that some among the voices miss and it’s right there in the first verse of Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

As Fred Craddock and M. Eugene Boring write in The People’s New Testament Commentary: “The law has lost its power to condemn, and Christians no longer live under the threat of God’s Punishment. …The Christian is set free from the law as dominated by the powers of sin and death to live by the revelation of God’s will, the law as it was intended to be, namely ‘life in Christ.’ God’s revelation of the way of life is not finally a way of life for every occasion (not even the ‘teachings of Jesus’), but living in a manner appropriate to those who belong to Christ.”

“…(T)he will of God is not realized by obeying a set of rules, but by living one’s life “in Christ” in the power of the Spirit.”[v]

The church has always been at odds with itself: do you have to be Jewish before you can be Christian; what can you eat, what is forbidden to eat; who is in, who is out; what is the role of the institution itself; what authority should ministers have; is slavery OK; should women be ministers; how involved should Christians be in government. The list is endless, and always will be.

But as we learn time and time again throughout the Bible, old understandings aren’t always the right understandings. Neither are new understandings necessarily the right ones.

The right understanding is that “the law has lost its power to condemn,” and “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in [us].”

Now I also promised to mention some of the other things the Assembly did that you might not have heard about on the evening news. Most of the items as the Assembly were approved by large margin; frankly most were approved by significantly more than 70 percent of the body.

One of the primary ones was the celebration of an initiative to launch 1,001 new worshipping communities – not churches, exactly, but “communities.” So far, almost 240 have been founded across the country.

Some other highlights:

  • Recommending that the Belhar Confession be added to our Book of Confessions, the second half of the denomination’s constitution. This confession coming out of the South African fight against apartheid would be the first non-European confession in the book. The adoption must be approved by a two-thirds of the 172 presbyteries. The Presbytery of West Virginia will be voting on it early next year.
  • The adoption of a policy statement entitled The Interreligious Stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which helps provide guidance and direction as we deal with other Christians and indeed other faiths. It underscores in theme the work we are doing here with the Harless Center.
  • The denomination committed to provide quality education for 1 million children in the United Stated and around the world. This commitment was kicked off with the announcement of a pledge of $1.65 million from three churches to the effort in south Sudan.

There’s really a lot more, and you can find information about it on several websites, including the presbytery’s‘ and denomination’s. I’ll also be glad to answer any questions you may have as best I can.

For now, however, I’ll just say that I continue to be honored and proud to be a part of a denomination that struggles daily to understand what God is calling us to do, and also understands that the call is not static, but everchanging – except for what we learn in Micah 6:8: “(W)hat does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

To God alone be the glory.

Please join me in prayer: Good and gracious God, we thank you for those among us who continue ask the questions, who struggle with each other, who remind us of your grace and our calling. We seek daily to understand, to learn and to respond. In the name of Jesus, your son, the Christ. Amen.


[i] Minutes of the United Presbyterian Church USA, 1978, Part 1, page 57.

[ii] Ibid, page 61.

[iii] Excursus: Sibling Rivalry in Genesis, The New Interpreters Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocrypha, Page 13. © 2003, Abingdon Press. Theodore Hiebert, Professor of Old Testament, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Ill.

[iv] Note on Romans 8:1; The New Interpreters Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocrypha, © 2003, Abingdon Press.

[v] The People’s New Testament Commentary, Page 715, © 2004, M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock. Westminster/John Knox Press

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