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Sunday, November 25, 2018
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-6 & Philippians 1:3-11
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I hope you all have had a great Thanksgiving weekend. I love this holiday. I love it because it is food-based, which should be enough, right? But I also love it because it is rooted in gratitude. We all have the opportunity to be thankful in life. Some of us live with thanksgiving on most days. And some of us need a reminder that our hearts are enlarged and our spirits are lifted when we live with gratitude.
This month we’ve been looking at how our church as a Presbyterian church operates. I talked about the role of elders two weeks ago, particularly in how our elders provide strategic leadership throughout our congregation. Last week Jill told stories about the caregiving ministry of deacons. This week I want to talk about the shared ministry of Presbyterian churches.
When I mention the “presbytery,” “synod,” and “General Assembly,” the most common response I get is the confused stare. Frankly, most of us have heard those words on occasion, but few of us have tried to find out what they are. And of course, since they don’t know what they are, they wouldn’t be able to recognize what – if any – impact those entities had on their real lives.
So, I want to spend just a little time today trying to help clear the clouds of confusion away from these words, to show us some of the positive impact, and to connect those ideas to larger Christian themes of unity.
Let me start by using a wedding cake as a metaphor for our ministry.
So, when a baker makes the cake, she takes the flour and eggs and oil and sugar and blends them all together into the batter. There is no way to separate those ingredients one from the next anymore. Then the batter goes into the cake pans for baking, a different size for each tier. Thus the entire cake is made up of the same material.
The Presbyterian Church is like a 5-tiered wedding cake. The same ingredients make up each level of the church. Because the same ingredients make up each level, no one can say that one level of the cake is better or more important than any other level. Each level shares the same stuff, and the cake would not be the same without each tier. The foundation of the Presbyterian Church is the members of the church. There are around 1.5 million Presbyterians in our denomination, and those people are what make ministry possible in our 9500 congregations, which is the second tier of our cake. There tiny churches with only a few people, and there are large churches, including Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta that has almost 9000 members, over 10 times larger than our church. All of these people commit their lives together for the common purpose of ministry through their church. This is certainly the part of the PC(USA) structure that most of us understand best, but there is more.
The churches are clustered together into geographical regions called presbyteries. We are a part of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, which stretches from Lake Michigan all the way east to Jackson and north to Cadillac. There are 65 churches that are part of this presbytery and over 13,000 members. This is the third tier of our cake.
There are actually 170 presbyteries throughout the denomination, which are clustered together in regions called synods, the fourth layer. The final layer is the General Assembly, a body that meets for a week once every other year, but this body is made up of the same people who make up our churches.
So, the same people make up all the layers of this cake, and the cake is a unified whole. This morning I want to focus a bit on the purpose of the presbytery and how – at its best – it enhances the ministry of individual churches like Grand Haven. I want to do this because we are stronger when we understand that our church is part of a greater whole.
So, the presbytery. What is it responsible for? “The presbytery is responsible for the government of the church throughout its district, and for assisting and supporting the witness of congregations of faith, hope, love, and witness.” That’s according to The Book of Order, which is part of our constitution as a church. In essence, it helps keep individual congregations faithful to the gospel. It oversees preaching, sacraments, and nurturing pastors and congregations.
So, what does this look like in our context? We believe that sharing ministry is what God has called us to as Presbyterians, and so we take a varied gifts and talents and work together for God’s kingdom. I’ve seen this in action many times. The first church I served in Georgia was similar to this church in many ways. It was on the larger side, and it had a decent amount of resources. The church could afford to have its own youth and children’s ministries. But there were lots of churches that had only a couple of youth in them. The church I served in Georgia made a conscious decision to be a strong supporter of the presbytery so that those smaller churches could have the resources to have youth events and camps that they could not have had without a financial backer. It was money my church could have used for itself to do some good, but they understood that we share ministry outside of our walls.
We have done something similar since I have been here. Two summers ago three of our sister churches in the Lake Michigan Presbytery were going on a youth mission trip, but they did not have affordable transportation. We have a nice church van, so we loaned it to them, which helped make their trip happen. We shared ministry together.
We also bind ourselves together for corporate witness. We as an individual congregation can do a lot of good in our community and world, and we should. However, when we share ministry more regionally through the presbytery and even more so through the organized efforts of our denomination, we stand more of a chance of creating change on a larger scale. We’ve done this with hunger issues. We’ve done this with justice issues. Did you know that cash bail has become a significant justice issue? If a person is arrested and does not have the money for bail, they sit in jail until their trial, which is a huge justice issue if they’re not guilty. The bail system isn’t a major problem for people with money. But for the poor? The poor are stuck. And this disproportionately affects people of color. Last summer in St. Louis as part of the General Assembly meeting, Presbyterians marched to the courthouse with bail money in tow to literally set the prisoners free. It was an act of public witness to God’s justice. We share ministry as Presbyterians, which means our impact is far greater than just what we see here.
In Philippians 1, Paul is writing all about partnership. The word he uses is koinonia. It’s a word that means a close relationship and a community that shares mutual interests. Paul particularly is connected to the church in Philippi because it is the first one he founded when he entered Europe. His writing to them reveals a great deal of joy and gratitude, which is made even more interesting by the fact that he is writing to them in jail. Paul has a vested interest in this church growing, but he is not physically there to do much about its growth. It happens apart from him, but he cares deeply about this partnership, so much so that he writes about them as though he were actually there. This partnership matters to Paul.
From jail, Paul is able to write these words, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). Even though he is not with them physically, he still cares about what God is doing through them. Our church’s relationship to other Presbyterian churches (and other faith communities for that matter) has a similar sense of partnership. We may not be physically present in all these places, but by prayer and support, we yearn for God to bring to fruition what God is doing in all of these places.
There is a sense of unity that we are all hoping for in having a church that shares ministry locally and nationally. Of course, there will be disagreements among Presbyterians. Of course, we may not all want to celebrate everything about this action or that ministry, but Christian unity isn’t found in having our beliefs line up 100% or in behaving exactly the same way. Unity is found in the God we worship. God’s people are diverse in our beliefs and practices yet we can be unified through the Spirit because of who God is.
Paul’s concludes with these words, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (1:9-11).
We may not always see the ministry of the presbytery, but it is there. Just as Paul could not physically bear witness to the ministry of the Philippians, so we cannot know all about the ministry of Presbyterians throughout our region and nation. Yet, we still must support each other. We still pray for each other. We are all in this together, each ingredients of this glorious cake that God is baking.
In the words of one of my favorite poets, Bono: One life with each other, sisters, brothers. One life but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.
My friends we are one because of Jesus. We are privileged to share ministry with sisters and brothers locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. We will be at our best when we learn how to pray for and support each other, displaying our Christian unity and doing some good for Jesus’ sake. We do not do ministry alone. Thank God for partners.