Becoming a House of Prayer for All People
Isaiah 56: 1-8 & 1 Peter 4: 7-11
Seventh Sunday in Easter/ 1st June 2003/ Sacrament of Holy Communion
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
[Isaiah 56: 1-8 was read last Sunday during the opening worship service at the General Assembly. It provided the theme for the assembly. A historical note on the passage will be helpful before reading the text and the sermon. There are three parts to the book of Isaiah, written by three different authors over three distinct time periods. Third or Tritero-Isaiah consists of chapters 56 through 66. These powerful chapters offer a prophetic vision of Yahweh’s assurance to all those afflicted in Zion. Historically, eunuchs were not welcomed into the temple to pray because they could not bear children, as a result they were not blessed by Yahweh. “Foreigners” refer to everyone who was not Jewish. Foreigners or gentiles were not allowed in the temple to pray. But here, beginning in chapter 56, Isaiah gives us a new vision, indicating that the old patterns will give way to something radically new. This is the kind of God we worship.]
The church is the people – the living, breathing, fallible women and men whom God has chosen before the foundations of the earth to be forged together into a new community of new women, new men who have been given new life in Christ. This past week in Denver, five hundred-plus elders and ministers, as well as thousands of observers and support staff, gathered together to worship and do the work of the church. The Spirit gathered these people – a wonderfully wide assortment of people of literally all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and persuasions, theological and otherwise – to do the work of the church through the 215th General Assembly. Through worship, committee work, discussions over a meal, conversations with new friends, we discover just how wonderfully diverse God’s people are and how God is using the unique gifts and talents of these people for the sake of the Kingdom.
The theme for the Assembly was Isaiah 56: 1-8, “A House of Prayer for All People.” And I’m stressing the people here, because as an assembly there weren’t many church-shattering issues or decisions. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t intense debate in committee and in the plenary hall – because there was. But throughout, I sensed that the Presbyterians in Denver were a relatively well-behaved lot and relatively kind to one another. This doesn’t mean there was comprehensive consent on issues, because there wasn’t. What I sensed is that Presbyterians at this year’s GA are beginning to realize that in order for us to be the church – to be the body of Christ – we need to get along. It is Christ who calls us together – both theological liberal and conservative alike. We both need each other and the church cannot be itself unless all the voices are heard and respected – except the voices that are abusive and intentionally destructive, we do not need them. The challenge before us is figuring out how to live with difference.
The symbolic expression of this Assembly was the election of Susan Andrews as Moderator. Susan is pastor of the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD. She is the first woman elected moderator while still serving a parish. She loves Jesus Christ and she loves the church. In her own words, she is an evangelical liberal (which is how I would describe myself), one who serves God by working for social justice (not unlike Isaiah). She was on the board of the Covenant Network, but resigned after her election in order to represent the full church.
As you might have known, there was an overture from DesMoines and Baltimore to delete the so-called “chastity and fidelity” amendment G-6.0106b from the Book of Order. Andrews stated that while she believed that this paragraph must be removed from the Book of Order because it is flawed legislation and unjust, this was not the year to push for this change. The overture was approved in committee, but on Friday night the entire assembly referred the overture to the theological task force considering this issue and prepared to report to the GA in 2006. The vote was 431-92. More than likely, 2006 will witness the next big push to delete “b,” hopefully by then this issue will be settled. In the meantime, we must learn to live together and learn from one another.
If you go online to www.pcusa.org you’ll find a complete summary of the assembly. As Michelle Stafford now knows, there is no way to give an account of the Assembly if you haven’t been to one. There’s so much to report, so much to experience. We should all be very proud of Michelle for her service to Baltimore Presbytery and the wider church. As I heard from friends who were working with her committee, she did a superb job this week.
The highlight for me this week was worship – and that’s what I want to close with. Last Sunday’s worship was one of the most moving worship experiences I have ever experienced. I always love assembly worship, but this one was different. There were close to 5,000 people in attendance for the service. A 650-member choir of adults, youth and children led us in worship. A Native American named Calvin Standing Bear, invoked God’s Spirit with flute for five minutes, as the beating of drums grew with greater intensity. It was primal. The music director, John Kuzma, composed a specially commissioned anthem based on the assembly theme of diversity. Instead of stressing the words of Isaiah’s text envisioning a time when all people will come to God’s mountain to pray, Kuzma composed a work that incorporates brass, organ, a rock-band, steel-drums, and – the best part for me – bagpipes! The diversity of instruments and sounds were beautifully brought together to create one musical piece – it was electric, sublime. The instruments accomplished what the church has yet to achieve. After the sermon, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Instead of having the table in the front of the people, a long table, probably thirty yards, literally reached out into the gathered body of Christ, calling all to a ministry of hospitality, evangelism, and redemption. On the table were about two hundred handmade stoneware chalices and plates. As the elders moved throughout the assembly hall to serve us, a 4th century Syrian hymn was played – it was haunting, mysterious, and beautiful. I was so moved by the service. I really felt the Holy Spirit flowing through me. I was sitting with a friend from a church in Wilmington and he handed me a packet of tissues because I was a wreck. I couldn’t even look at the worship book without being moved to tears. Then for the postlude the pipes and organ played “Highland Cathedral” with a choral overlay. By then I was emotionally wiped-out. I was worshiped-out!
Despite what you might read in the Presbyterian Layman (and I hope you don’t read The Layman or if you do read The Layman I hope that you don’t take it seriously), the Presbyterian Church is alive and well. I can say this, even though we lost 40,000 members this year, because the Holy Spirit is at work in the church. The church is alive when the Spirit blows through it, when the people of God open themselves up to what the Spirit is moving us towards. And the Spirit is moving. I’ve returned from the assembly more committed to the Presbyterian Church because I am committed to the work of God’s Spirit in the world. I am committed to Isaiah’s vision of a future when the place where God dwells will truly be a house of prayer for all peoples. That day has yet to arrive. But because it is God’s vision – not Ken Kovacs’ vision – because it is God’s vision, it will come. This means we have no choice but to work for it. For the God whom we serve is always doing a new thing. The God who loves us and calls us to follow is so unbelievably gracious and welcoming, doing the unthinkable, surprising us every step along the way – like preparing a table for us, inviting us to pull up a chair, pull up a pew, to have a meal and dwell in the presence of God.
 See Dr. Andrews’ address given 14th June 2002, Columbus, OH to the commissioners at the Covenant Network Convocation dinner, “Confessions of an Evangelical Liberal” at http://www.covenantnetwork.org. .
 Michelle Stafford is a member of CPC and a senior graduating from Catonsville High School. She was Baltimore Presbytery’s Youth Advisory Delegate to the General Assembly.