A Plan for the Fullness of Time

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
July 15, 2012 Ephesians 1:3-14


I am what you call in my business a GA junkie. I attended my first Presbyterian General Assembly in 1984 as a college student, when I served as the young adult advisory delegate from my presbytery. In 1989 I served as a seminary assistant; my job was largely stacking piles of papers on tables, distributing reports to commissioners, back when everything was photocopied.

I served as a General Assembly commissioner once, in 1994. I’ve attend most assemblies since then, some as an observer and advocate, particularly around ordination matters, and later for “official” reasons as a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church or as a member of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.

Why do I go to General Assembly, and why do I like it? These meetings, a gathering of more than 2000, about 750 of whom have voting rights, are a combination family reunion, revival, trade show and business meeting. The business meeting is the official reason, but all of those other things happen. I see old friends, make new ones, learn things, make cases when appropriate, and track business.

If you read about the Presbyterian church in the newspaper, or online, mostly you will read about our controversies. This year was no different. Commissioners, advisory delegates and observers gathered in Pittsburgh June 30 to July 7. My hotel room might have been the best part of the whole week, looking out over left field of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ beautiful new ball park. Some friends got to a game or two; not yours truly. Your sympathy is appreciated.

So if you read about us, you may have read about two things. Two close votes. Two very close votes. By a vote of 333-331, we declined to take the step of divesting in stock we as a denomination own with Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett Packard. Those three companies, our national Mission Responsibility Through Divestment Committee had determined, do business in Israel that does not promote our goals of peacemaking and justice. We invest in many other companies doing business in Israel, I need to say. Denominational investment policy is complex; when you add Israel and Palestine to the mix, it becomes increasingly difficult, and contentious. And it was in Pittsburgh, with even dozens and dozens of Jews attending the General Assembly to lobby commissioners. In the end, after a committee recommended that we divest, the vote in the assembly itself failed by two slim votes – that’s either how divided, or undecided, we were.

The other issue you may have read about was no less complex than the ethics of our investment policy – marriage. Ordination, for now, seems to be a settled issue in the Presbyterian Church. I believe we should have dealt with the more fundamental matter of human relationships first – including marriage – before we tackled ordination. But we did not. So with cultural views changing, and with marriage legal in eight states and Washington, D.C., including our state, the General Assembly addressed a whole series of overtures, some wanting to confirm our current definition, some wanting to change it from “a man and a woman” to “two people,” some wanting no changes but a little flexibility, some wanting to study, some wanting not to discuss this at all.

In the end, the committee’s recommendation, passed 28-24 to move toward a change in our standards, was voted down by the assembly as a whole, this time by a vote of 338-308, just 30 votes. That was much closer than many expected, but disappointing to some of us nonetheless. We will now study this matter for two years, and I hope that Third Church will offer input to this process through study and advocacy.

Other things happened at the assembly. We talked a lot about the future of the church, how it is changing and evolving, but perhaps not as quickly and nimbly as it needs to in order to meet the needs of culture. We talked about finances a lot. We talked about our doctrinal standards. We talked a lot, period, and late into the evening.

Sometime in the middle of the week, I asked a friend of mine, a seminary president, why this all mattered. It wasn’t a cynical question at all, or even one asked from frustration. How and why, I wondered, in a denomination that is shrinking, that is so often defined by conflict, that has made the decision to be much more congregationally focused, emphasizing presbyteries and deemphasizing national structures, how and why does this matter?

Let me assure you that I still think it does. The portion of your pledge that goes to compensate Martha and me that, in turn, the Board of Pensions invests in order to grow its funds, means that we have something to do with business in Israel in Palestine. And marriage, for us, is not a theoretical matter. Our teaching needs changed, I believe, not just because it does not fully reflect our understanding of the gospel, but because it causes a pastoral hardship for people we love and care about, our members and friends, neighbors and co-workers and children, and people who want to preside at their weddings.

That’s why General Assembly matters – ethics and morals, and our connection to a larger community and conversation. And though we have a leadership position in our presbytery and denomination, and though I have been privileged to serve our broader family, we need help as well thinking about our future, how we respond, how we adapt, how we live into change not from fear, but from hope, and have resources to help us and fellow travelers to join us.

What we need, whether a denomination, or a congregation, or an individual, a regular old person like you or me, is a vision, a way to look at life and life’s decisions, a bigger picture into which the pieces of our life puzzle fit. I thought about that in Pittsburgh as we were debating marriage one minute and investment policy the next, the future of the church one minute and immigration policy the next, the American penal system one minute and how to attract younger people to the church the next. It could be that for the Presbyterian Church, or for you and me, we could be like a ping pong ball, unless we had a larger way to approach things, an overall framework. And we do, thank God.

This morning, and for the next two Sundays at least, we will take a closer look at the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, the letter to the Ephesians. It is an extraordinary document, containing some of the most powerful New Testament language we know. I would encourage you to read it through – you can do it in about 15 minutes while sipping lemonade poolside. When you read it, you will discover what we need, a vision, a plan, a pathway, not step-by-step directions, mind you, but a bigger picture unto which you can place all of the little pictures to get a sense of the whole.

Paul will not tell us whether to divest from Caterpillar or not, but he will tell us that all we are to do is to take the form of an act of worship, of praising and blessing God because of God’s goodness to us.

I thought about that this past week as I was debriefing in my own head, and in countless blogs and e-mails, about the week prior. What is the bigger picture, for you, of me, for the Presbyterian Church? Why does it matter? It matters only as it allows us to praise and worship God in our words and actions. Our theology, our social policy, our plans and hopes and dreams – and by “our” I mean the big “our” out there and the “our” in here – need to reflect our understanding that because we have been saved by grace, because we have a future in God’s care and commonwealth, we need not be worried.

Paul, in Ephesians, reminds us that because of Christ, not of our own doing but Christ’s doing, we have been swept up into a history that is filled with hope and light, not fear and death. We are to be assured that grace has welcomed us in. We praise God continually for that, but we also live lives that reflect that grace. We don’t work to earn God’s favor. Because we receive God’s love and mercy as a gift, we work, seek to do the right thing and say the right thing and make faithful decisions, as a grateful response to God’s gracious activity.

“Truth is in order to goodness,” our Presbyterian Book of Order says. Truth is in order to goodness. Church meetings must be in order to ministry. Debates must be in order to justice, or compassion, or love, never held for their own benefit, and never held simply as an exercise in left-right politics.

The more I live in the Presbyterian church, the more I’ve discovered that I can co-exist much more satisfactorily with someone I disagree with who does so with grace and humility than someone I agree with who does so with nastiness and certainty. Grace allows their heart, and mine, to be open to the larger truth, which leads us to greater goodness.

If you read Ephesians this afternoon, or later, you will note that Paul spends lots of time up-front thanking God, more than usual. The word “blessing” appears time after time after time. Remember that. That’s the place to start – thanking God for all that is, has been, will be.

Then you will discover some big words of faith – destined, adoption, grace, redemption, forgiveness, mystery, inheritance, salvation. Again and again, Paul tells us that we have received an inheritance – grace – and that we must do two things, be grateful recipients of it by thanking God, and being good stewards of it by living lives of responsibility and hope.

We are dependent on God, not ourselves. We are not independent, and we are not alone. And if we wonder, if we wander, if we suffer, if we question – whether at a big church meeting or in the living of our everyday lives – we have this hope: that God’s vision is to gather up all things, all things, as a plan for the fullness of time.

A plan for the fullness of time. I am grateful for that, and I hope you are too. It places each life, each moment, each decision, even each meeting, at the throne of grace, a much bigger picture, governed by God’s vision in God’s time. Let us thank God always, and keep plugging away, doing the things that will give God glory, trusting God to do the rest. Amen.

 

 

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