June 10, 2018

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

“We Do Not Lose Heart”

As most of you know, I attended the General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church in Canada earlier this week in Waterloo, Ontario. And it was an interesting time.

It was a busy time for me because I had a lot to do during the meeting. I had responsibilities as Convenor of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee. I also served as a Chaplain to commissioners, preached at the Monday morning worship, and assisted with introducing a consensus decision-making process for one part of the meeting. I wasn’t slated to be a voting commissioner at the Assembly, but then the Rev. Lip Boon Lee from Moosomin broke her foot, so I ended up being a commissioner as well.

It was a wonderful Assembly in some ways – with inspiring worship, an excellent Moderator, good food including lots of fruits and vegetables, which I appreciate, and some wonderful opportunities to connect with colleagues and old friends from across the country.

But it was also a very difficult Assembly. Although I came prepared to preach about the call to unity in diversity, I still struggled with the severity of the theological division in our denomination.

I made a plea for those with differing convictions about same-sex marriage to accept their differences and make space for each other within the church, but there was still a huge amount of animosity and many people determined to have their view point win out.

Lots of commissioners at the Assembly and other Presbyterians watching the proceedings online had hoped that this Assembly would make a decision one way or the other. But we didn’t. Some saw it as a lack of courage or a stalling tactic.

Faced with the report of the Church Doctrine Committee (a group that is deeply divided, with some recommending affirmation of the traditional view of marriage and others recommending doctrinal change to allow for same-sex marriage) the Assembly decided not to pick a side, not to decide the doctrinal question at this meeting.

Instead, we referred all the reports and studies and overtures and recommendations to a new Special Committee made up of 12 former Moderators. And their task is to find and propose a way forward for the church.

Likely, it will be a model of unity with diversity, with perhaps a local option, with freedom of conscience for ministers and sessions to participate or not in same-sex weddings and ordinations of LGBT+ people who are in relationships.

I don’t envy these past-Moderators for the work they have to do, but I am hopeful that they will be able to do it, for the sake of our whole church and our continuing ministry together.

As I reflected on all that I experienced this week at the Assembly, the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to the Church at Corinth seemed very fitting: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

There are many things happening in the church and the world that could cause us to lose heart. For example, my Ontario friends are pretty disillusioned by the result of their provincial election this week.

Across the country, the issue of poverty continues to be a major concern, especially for those living on First Nations. Suicide rates are disconcerting too – whether among youth, famous people, or disproportionately among LGBT+ individuals.

Considering the wider world, we might be wondering and worrying about endless conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine, and we may be giving up hope that anyone can find a solution to such a long-standing problem.

And in our personal lives we have struggles too – issues with health, relationships, finances, or stress – problems that threaten to overwhelm us with discouragement.

Not to mention the fact that our Presbyterian Church cannot come to agreement and commit to the full inclusion of LGBT+ members in our churches including the option of marriage and ordination just as they are.

Very much like our church today, the Corinthian Christians had some struggles with unity. They probably didn’t agree about all their beliefs, and when they disagreed they weren’t always very nice to each other.

Paul had to counsel them that diversity in the church was right and good. And he had to challenge them to LOVE one another, whether or not they agreed about some things.

The preachers throughout our General Assembly called on the Presbyterian Church (and the commissioners in particular) to LOVE one another also. And did we do it? Well, perhaps a little bit. But I think we could have done better.

I wasn’t the only one from our Presbytery at the General Assembly. Fran Neuls was the elder commissioner from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Grenfell. Donna Wilkinson was there to assist with the Young Adult Representatives. And Matthew Yakemchuch was the YAR (Young Adult Representative) for the Presbytery of Assiniboia.

YARs participate in the whole Assembly process. They do not have a vote like a commissioner, but they have what is called an advisory vote. While the commissioners vote yes or no with yellow cards, the YARs have green cards. They don’t usually vote on every recommendation, but they let the Moderator know when they wish to have an advisory vote, and then they vote BEFORE the commissioners vote on the question. Many of the commissioners (including me) pay close attention to the thoughts and reflections of the YARs, and pay attention to how they vote.

On the final morning of the Assembly, the YARs always make a presentation about their experience, and many people said that this year’s YAR presentation was the best they had seen in many years.

I thought about showing you the video of the presentation by the YARs because it was so honest, prophetic, and hopeful. But it was also quite long, so I’ll just encourage you to watch it online, and I’ll tell you a little about it instead.

The YARs presented an exercise in which they stood together in a line at the front of the Assembly Hall. Then one of them named an experience or an opinion, and invited those who agreed with each statement to step forward out of the line.

Step forward if you had NO sleep last night. (Quite a few, including Matthew, stepped forward for that one.)

Step forward if you prayed for God’s guidance during this meeting. (All of them stepped forward.)

Step forward if you understood all the decisions that were made by the Assembly. (No one stepped forward for that one.)

Step forward if you felt like the Assembly was a safe environment to express your opinion, even if your opinion was in the minority. (Only a few stepped forward.)

Step forward if the way the sederunts unfolded made you proud of the behaviour of the court. (None stepped forward.)

Step forward if you came with a strong opinion about something, but you’re leaving with your views changed, horizons broadened, or new convictions. (Many stepped forward.)

Step forward if you’re leaving this place with hope. (All stepped forward.)

The YARs pointed out that no matter how much they disagreed or had differences, they always returned to stand together side-by-side. They stepped forward to indicate their opinion, but then they stepped back into the line again. They said: “We respected each other. We supported each other. We did not try to take anyone else’s space. Together with love, Christ, and God, we are One.

And that witness was to me (and to many commissioners that morning) a witness of hope and encouragement, that young adult Presbyterians (who also held a diversity of opinions, experiences, and biblical interpretations) could be unified by their shared faith in God and stand together in love.

Right now, we tend to look at what can be seen. We look at the divided state of the church. We look at the broken state of the world. We notice the trials and struggles in our lives today. And it would be easy to give up hope and to lose heart.

But Paul encourages us that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

I think Paul is talking about the Kingdom of God – the promised time to come when all is right in the world, when people are reconciled, and justice is done, and peace flourishes everywhere.

Sometimes we might start to think that the Reign of God is something we won’t get to experience until after we die and we go to heaven. But Jesus tells us that the Kingdom is already here and also “not quite yet.” For now, we get glimpses of the Kingdom, experiences of love, witnesses of peace, signs of hope that encourage us not to lose heart.

God used the YARs at this Assembly to provide that vision of God’s reign of peace. May we participate with them, and with God, in working to build that Kingdom. And may we never lose heart.