Editor’s note: This is a sermon preached on June 25, 2019 at the stated meeting of the Presbytery of Upper Ohio Valley. Much of it draws on several recent sermons on the same topic, so forgive duplications.
Good evening and greetings. First greetings from the Synod of The Trinity which I have been privileged to serve as moderator, currently in my second term. Also, greetings from First Presbyterian Church in Morgantown, where I am a member and from the Presbytery of West Virginia.
I also want to take a minute to say how pleased I was when I arrived this evening to see long-time friends like John Harris, Mary Jane Knapp, Connie Quinn and David Stammerjohn. And one of my colleagues at West Virginia University grew up at Calvary church in St. Clairesville. Anyone here from there? Go back and tell Mrs. Richardson that Heather is doing fine! It is true that the Presbyterian church is really 1.8 million of our closest friends.
I also want to thank the leadership of the Presbytery of Upper Ohio Valley, especially another long-time friend David Demarest, for inviting me to help lead in worship today. I’ve known David for 20 years, when we both plied a different calling – that of journalist. He, of course, went into the ministry. Me, nothing so noble: I’m a flak – that’s slang for public relations person – for West Virginia University.
First, I invite you to join me in prayer: O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.
Today’s Scripture readings are familiar passages from Ephesians and Galatians. When I asked for some guidance about the planning, David told me “as the spirit leads.” That can be dangerous. I confess that the Spirit almost always leads me to the lectionary: the Ephesians passage is from the daily lectionary for today and the Galatians from this coming Sunday’s. And I also confess there might have been a little “eisegesis” in the choices from those lists, so I hope you’ll forgive me for that. (In my own defense, one of the reasons I appreciate the lectionary is because so often the passages at a given time have relevance to the events of the day and provide a way to help interpret them.)
Please listen for God’s word to the church today, first from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:11-22; NRSV)
And then, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. …
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:1, 13-26; NRSV)
This is the word for the Lord, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
I guess you should know something about me; it might help explain a little bit. I am what some might call a “presbynerd.” I am one of those rare breeds who is a lifelong Presbyterian, even joining the church back in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, a year or so before the time for the traditional “communicants class” – that’s what we called today’s “confirmation class” in the 60s in the Southern church.
Much of my story is sickeningly typical: heavily involved as a youth, never darkening the door of church – Presbyterian or otherwise – while in college or early adulthood, but returning actively after my wife, Margaret, and I had our first child.
Eventually, I was elected an elder back in the ’80s, and have since served on four sessions, including terms as clerk of session, as stated clerk of the presbytery, as a commissioned lay pastor in two small congregations in Charleston, West Virginia, on too many committees to count – both in churches and presbyteries – and at the regional and national level of the denomination.
And now my son and his wife are Presbyterian pastors in Minnesota. In fact, my daughter-in-law this weekend received her certification as a spiritual director, and my son is studying for his Doctor of Ministry degree at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Also, along the way, I had the good fortune of being able to attend more than a dozen General Assemblies as a journalist, two for The Associated Press but mostly for The Presbyterian Outlook. And a personal highlight, a commissioner to last year’s Assembly in St. Louis.
I tell you this only so you’ll understand that I am Presbyterian to the core. While I might tacitly acknowledge there are other valid expressions of Christianity – I’m not sure I really, truly believe that – that’s a joke. Mostly.
But even with all that good Presbyterian background, I was mostly ignorant about what synods really did until I found myself elected as a commissioner to the Synod of the Trinity about five years ago. I suspect many of you are in the same boat.
So here is the Book of Order definition of a synod, found at G-3.0401 (I’m a former stated clerk, so you know I have to quote the Book of Order, it’s a law, right, Frank?):
Synod is responsible for the life and mission of the church throughout its region and for supporting the ministry and mission of its presbyteries as they seek to support the witness of congregations, to the end that the church throughout its region becomes a community of faith, hope, love, and witness. As it leads and guides the witness of the church throughout its region, it shall keep before it the marks of the Church (F-1.0302), the notes by which Presbyterian and Reformed communities have identified themselves through history (F-1.0303) and the six Great Ends of the Church(F-1.0304).
In light of this charge, the synod has responsibility and power to
- provide that the Word of God may be truly preached and heard.
- …provide that the Sacraments may be rightly administered and received.
- …nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ.
And then there’s this, from the Westminster Confession of Faith:
For the better government and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils: and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification, and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the Church.
Got it? Didn’t think so.
So let’s go back to our beginning, 301 years ago, the Synod of Philadelphia, which stretched from Long Island to Virginia and had all of 17 ministers. Its first meeting was Sept. 17, 1717. Since then there have been multiple configurations and names until we arrived at the Synod of the Trinity, and its 16 presbyteries, after reunion. Now, the Synod includes all of Pennsylvania, all of West Virginia except the eastern Panhandle, and a sliver of Ohio. The Synod’s bounds cover 1,094 churches and 160,509 Presbyterians, so it is not only the oldest, it’s one of the largest in the entire denomination.
I could tell you more about structure – after all we Presbyterians love orderliness – but what I really want to talk about is mission, and, eventually, about one particular expression of the Synod’s mission today.
As the debate about the future of synods has developed over the last several years, with some wanting to dissolve them altogether or at least reduce their number, the Synod of The Trinity has listened to the discussion and embarked on a new system of governance that we believe will enable it to better serve the presbyteries.
The official name is Policy Governance, but what it really means is working to identify who are the synod’s – to use business language – owners and beneficiaries. It should come as no surprise, really, that in fact the presbyteries are both.
Which is, of course, another way of describing what the Book of Order says synod’s responsibilities are: “the life and mission of the church throughout its region and for supporting the ministry and mission of its presbyteries as they seek to support the witness of congregations, to the end that the church throughout its region becomes a community of faith, hope, love, and witness.”
As we go about fulfilling that mission, we have identified a primary end – not to be confused with the Great Ends of the Church – and six secondary ends. Think of them as goals.
The Synod’s primary end says:
“As part of the Body of Christ, the Synod of the Trinity, through the responsible use of shared resources, supports and challenges member Presbyteries to be vital, innovative, and faithful in their collaborative and distinctive callings.”[4
Our secondary ends are:
- Connecting presbytery leadership for coordination, spiritual support and sharing best practices.
- Encouraging innovation in, between and among presbyteries through the use of human, programmatic and financial resources.
- Providing services of education and nurture as requested by member presbyteries.
- Extending partnership of member presbyteries in joint and shared mission and ministry.
- Nurturing relationships within the larger church for the purpose of greater witness.?
- Fostering conversation and action for the promotion of social righteousness.
You hear the key words in those ends: connecting, encouraging, providing, extending, nurturing, fostering.
There are many ways the Synod goes about that work. There are a variety of grants available to help presbyteries and congregations in various aspects of ministry, including campus and camp ministry.
There is a lot of behind the scenes work on the part of Synod staff, whether it’s in helping presbyteries find executive leadership, bringing leaders from around the presbytery together to learn from each other, provide advice and counsel on a number of topics. And then the Book of Order duties of reviewing presbytery minutes and the occasional Permanent Judicial Commission case.
It’s also about that good Presbyterian word “connectionalism.” For the last several years, the Synod has sponsored regional meetings, bringing together church members as well as presbytery leadership for discussions about how the Synod can be more helpful.
Over and over again we’ve heard a desire to connect with more Presbyterian sisters and brothers around the region, and eat. We love to share stories and experiences, and eat; and hear about what others are doing in their cities and towns, and eat.. We also find out that our problems are not unique, and indeed maybe another church in another presbytery is closer to solving that problem than our own congregation might be.
I want to focus today on the recent round of those regional meetings, which concluded just a couple of weeks ago, because I believe the topic is so important for us today and illustrates one the ministries the Synod – indeed the entire Christian church – is called to today.
The question I keep asking our Governing Commission and our commissioners is this: What is Synod’s role, if any, in addressing the issues we face as a society, issues such as the prevalence of hate groups, gun violence, opioid or other addictions.
Based on what we’ve seen over the past several months, I submit that the growth of hate behavior tops the list for people of faith. While we have responsibilities and a role in all of those, Christians are commanded, yes, COMMANDED, as Paul reminds us in Galatians: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Or, as Paul says in Ephesians: “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity…”
One of the few things we can all probably agree on is that there’s very little we agree on these days. And a lot of that disagreement has a very nasty and sometimes violent edge to it. We bemoan the lack of civility in public discourse, we demonize those who offer different points of view, we inhabit our own echo chambers so we don’t have to hear opposing, challenging or uncomfortable thoughts.
We can’t even agree on what “facts” are or “truth” is.
This division has been building for quite a while; I suggest more than a decade. The snowball of hate has been growing and seems to be getting bigger, rolling faster and becoming more deadly.
If there’s one message that is crystal clear in the Bible, it’s that hate is not a Christian value. There is no place in the New Testament that advocates division, separation of God’s people, discrimination or hate.
But you would be hard-pressed to see that in the words of some who profess to be Christians, these 21 centuries after Christ’s presence on earth.
It’s become all too acceptable to see the “other” – other genders, other nationalities, other politicians, other colors, other races, other ideologies, other, other, other – as evil, misguided, less than human, diabolical, greedy, damned.
But the truth is that we all, they all, are children of God: Donald Trump and Barack Obama; Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi; Vladimir Putin and Queen Elizabeth; Adolf Hitler and Dwight Eisenhower; Pope Francis and Franklin Graham; you and me.
We all inhabit the same planet, we’re all made of the same dust, we all come from the same place. Shylock said it in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
Substitute anything you want for “Jew,” and the same holds true.
- I am a Republican. I am a Democrat.
- I am a Christian. I am a Muslim. I am an atheist.
- I am Russian, I am Mexican. I am Iranian.
- I am a woman. I am a man. I am gay. I am neither.
- I am rich. I am poor.
- I am black. I am white.
- I am Presbyterian. I am Catholic.
- I think we should all carry guns. I think guns should be banned.
- I am you. You are me.
The rest of Shylock’s speech is also instructive:
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
In other words, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We all learn from and mimic each other, only more so. Put another way, from elsewhere in Galatians, “for you reap whatever you sow.”
We have been talking in various synod gatherings for more than a year about the issue of hate, especially as seen in the growth of hate groups and hate behavior.
So, along with the happy coincidence of the 50th anniversary of Fred Rogers’ ministry – perhaps the most famous Presbyterian pastor of this era, we structured our annual assembly last October around the theme “won’t you be my neighbor.” We watched video clips from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, we talked about what it means to be a neighbor, we heard the story of an interfaith community at the denomination’s conference center in Stony Point, NY.
And then four days after the assembly ended, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Mr. Rogers literal neighborhood in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people and wounded seven others, simply because they were Jews. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in this country.
And, sad to say, exactly six months after the Tree of Life shooting, it happened again in California where a young man went to a Jewish house of worship. The carnage wasn’t as devastating: ONLY one dead and four injured. And in New Zealand, a man attacked and killed 51 Muslims just because they were Muslims.
For me, this serves as both a symbol and a call to action about the state of our nation, and even world.
Did you know:
- The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 36 hate-related groups in Pennsylvania, five in West Virginia – although I suspect there are more – and 36 in Ohio. But beyond the groups, hate behavior is growing across the country from individuals as well.
- The Ku Klux Klan spread leaflets to residents in Carlisle, PA, and Morgantown, in February and March this year.
- In 2017 in Luzerne County, PA, vandals broke into a Jewish family’s home and painted “Go Away Jews” and a swastika in the garage.
- A West Virginia man was indicted in 2017 for making derogatory comments regarding a woman’s actual and perceived sexual orientation and used a glass bottle to hit her multiple times in the head.
- I recently saw a photo of a man standing on a courthouse steps with a sign saying, “The Holocaust didn’t happen. But it should have.”
As a response, in late May and early June the synod sponsored four regional meetings with the theme “Silence is the welcome mat for hate.” We heard some statistics, watched some very disturbing video, and some very uplifting video. Heard from people who had experienced hate behavior, and some who have worked to combat it and to show another way.
It’s important to know that it is not just groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but organizations such as Proud Boys, Identity Evropa, the Christian Identity movement – all of which are present in our region – that espouse hate (except they won’t call it that, even though it is).
And I learned of some more just this weekend: there are various groups with names like Real Three Percenters. They trace their name to a claim that only 3 percent of colonists were involved in the American Revolution. Although they have been around, I learned of them in a news story reporting that they, and other right-wing militia groups, have vowed to protect – with deadly force if necessary – Republican senators who have fled Oregon to prevent the legislature there from voting on climate change legislation.
Some of these groups, and others like them, operate in our own backyard – dare I say even perhaps in our own congregations – and we, as people of faith, must address that, combat that, reflect a different way.
If you’re interested in some of the information and resources we shared at those meetings, I encourage you to go on the Synod’s website – http://syntrinity.org – where you’ll find a link to a lot of material. You can find that link in your most recent presbytery weekly newsletter.
One of the things that became clear during one of those discussions was the hyper-sensitivity present even in this discussion of hate. We had tried as we structured these discussions, to stay far away from politics because we felt like even the scent of discussion of the political scene would cause some to shut down or reject the entire discussion.
That was a wise decision, as I discovered when I slipped a bit, totally unintentionally. I was leading a section where we were talking about the growth in hate crimes and hate behavior. I, unwisely it turned out, mentioned that in places where Donald Trump has held rallies, hate crimes increased more than 200 percent.
One participant said she was offended, that I had blamed all hate behavior on Trump when the left was just as responsible, and she might go sit in the car for the rest of the day. Well I apologized for offending her, that my point and been the growth of behavior. She stayed, but she wasn’t happy. Other participants came up to me later, saying they had been stunned at her reaction, but also, “welcome to central Pennsylvania.”
That incident underscored for me the extent to which we eye each other with suspicion, ready to pounce on any perceived criticism of our own positions or beliefs. I am equally guilty of that tendency, I confess, for I see no discernible support in my understanding of Christ’s calls for so much in our society today.
Hate groups with their angry, violent beliefs are defended as “some good people.”
Some think it’s OK to separate children from their parents as a deterrent to people coming to this country to seek a better life. Many of those children end up abused or even dead at the hands of their jailers – and yes, I chose that word deliberately.
And some want to build walls around land that is not ours to begin with, but God’s, to keep them out.
Laws are passed that enrich the already rich among us, all the while removing any protections for those on the other end of the scale, struggling every day just to make it through life.
We forget that troublesome Golden Rule – “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Instead it is more like, “I got mine, you worry about yours,” or maybe even better, the punchline has become reality: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
We forget that when Cain suggested he was not his brother’s keeper, God responded: “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
What has happened to us?
Last week, I had the privilege of leading worship at my home church in Morgantown. It was Trinity Sunday, so that was of course the overall subject of the sermon. But I was struck during my preparation for that sermon to come across this observation by Catholic theologian Richard Rohr. He was talking about the Trinity, but I think it offers a broader insight into the need for the church – the hands of feet of Christ on this earth – to challenge hate where ever it rears its head.
Rohr said the Trinity is necessary because “the problem of otherness and separation is so foundational to all of reality that it had to be overcome in the very nature of God—from the very beginning.”
What and how, I’m asking, is the Synod of the Trinity, and its constituent presbyteries, being called to lead now and into the future. We’ll see where this question takes us, but it is a question that must be asked of faith leaders in today’s climate.
As I close, I feel the need to bring this whole thing back to Scripture – this is supposed to be “proclamation of the Word” after all.
A synod is just a cog in our Presbyterian world, one of four levels of governance. But it plays more, at least should play more, than just a procedural and financial part.
Paul says that we are to live in peace, that we have been “brought near by the blood of Christ,” that He has made us one, that we are “no longer strangers and aliens,” that through love we are to “become slaves to one another.”
That is not possible if we treat God’s creation, both human and otherwise, with disdain and hate.
And, he reminds us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
None of those fruits come from a tree of hate and arrogance.
If Christ’s church is to survive even for the next few decades, there is no question in my mind that we must be aggressively, visibly, undeniably and unapologetically champions for the way of love over hate, peace over conflict and unity over division.
To God alone be the glory.
 Book of Order, 2017/2019, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), (Louisville, KY, Office of the General Assembly, 2017), G-3.0401.
 Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), (Louisville, KY, Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 6.173
 Book of Order, 2017/2019, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), (Louisville, KY, Office of the General Assembly, 2017), F-1.0304.
 “Synod of the Trinity/Synod Ends,” Synod of The Trinity, accessed June 22, 2019, http://www.syntrinity.org/synod-ends/
 Shakespeare, William, Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene I, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/merchant/full.html
 Matthew 7:12 (NRSV)
 Genesis 4:10-12 (NRSV)