Synod Assembly

SERMON Easter 5C 2019

Nobody hates church meetings more than I do, and in years past I have managed to find an excuse to skip our synod’s annual assembly.   For one thing – an important thing to me – we always meet in a big Marriott hotel where we must worship in a hideous hotel ballroom.  Worship is very important to me.  It’s the only meeting I really like.

But I have to say that this synod assembly, just completed in Tarrytown, was the best church meeting I have ever been required to attend.  The setting was the same as always, with the splendors of Marriott décor on all sides.  But the spirit was different; the Holy Spirit was very palpably among us, and the atmosphere of smoldering anger and mistrust that I have come to expect was absent; the air was clear and the spirit was clean.

There was room to breathe; there was room to be the church.   There was lots of love in the room, something that transformed, even our ballroom worship services into real celebrations.  One of my favorite moments was occasioned by a glitch in the proceedings, when the fourth ballot for bishop had to be repeated (we elected a new bishop, by the way) and the whole assembly was required to wait for that task to be handled and the results tallied.  One of our pastors stood up to object to the hymns that were selected: these hymns are unsing-able.  Let’s please sing something we know.  Someone shouted out Blessed Assurance, and in a minute we were all singing and clapping together – joyfully and loudly.  (That’s probably the best thing about synod assembly, is the singing: people sing right out, like we used to at home in the old days; I miss that sometimes …)  Then Bishop McCoid suggested Amazing Grace, and we lifted that song to God; when we had sung all the verses, the assembly wasn’t quite through, so we sang an additional verse with only the words Praise God.

By the time we had sung, shouted and clapped our way through Jesus Lifted Me, we were a happy crowd.  This, even though we were in the middle of the election for our new bishop, and the outcome was very much up in the air.  All that joy, opened up by a mistake in the balloting and a word of truth about the music …

Jesus says in today’s gospel, A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another … by this shall everyone know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.  I’m not sure that I have ever felt that commandment in action in quite the same way, ever before, even in that wretched cheesy Marriott ballroom.  We came together in love, as Jesus commands.

As it always seems to do here in Metro New York, the election for bishop went to a fifth ballot (in our system, the most you can have is five ballots).   So it’s always down to two people, and several times the margin of victory has been as few as five votes, out of 450 or so.  I remember the first time that Bishop Bouman was elected, unseating the incumbent: the results were announced, and there was absolute silence, that horrible silence I’ve come to know from countless church meetings when somebody says something hideously wrong, like “Let’s do a stewardship campaign.”  That silence didn’t bode well and we have been, as a synod, in various degrees of hot water ever since.

Well, this time there was no rancor in play: when the name of Paul Egensteiner was announced that room erupted in cheering and clapping and whistling.  There was a spirit of hope in the room such as I haven’t seen since I left Pittsburgh, where, incidentally, the bishop was Don McCoid, who has served us so faithfully as our interim bishop over the past year.

Further thanks must be offered to our denomination’s presiding bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, who brought amazing good humor to the work of leading the assembly through the election.  She was wonderful.

Of course we heard lots of bad news, too, over the course of the meeting: numbers are falling off, there are fewer of us, there’s less money to work with, many congregations face daunting challenges, even in remaining open.  We’ve heard it all before, have been dutifully discouraged and have become adept at assigning blame.

And yet, does it occur to you as it does to me  that the words we have from Jesus in today’s gospel, love one another as I have loved you, were spoken on the darkest night of the whole Christian project, the last night of Jesus’ life?   Love one another, and before the day was over, Jesus was dead, hanging naked and bleeding from the cross.   The disciples scattered in fear for their own lives.  “I don’t know this guy” proclaims Peter, and the rock on which the church was to be built begins to sink.

That’s discouragement.  Yet the promises of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the power of Jesus burst from the tomb, and the disciples – disorganized, homeless and confused though they were – were found by the spirit and … here we still are, the church of God, proclaiming the reign of love, washing away sin, healing discouragement and despair, surviving 2000 years of human sin and stupidity to offer healing to the world. This is a task much larger than any budget or any building.   It is the work of Love.

Love one another Jesus commands, as if love could ever be commanded or compelled.   He means for us to understand that love is who we are, love is what we do, without love we are nothing and nowhere, making nowhere plans for nobody.   And, let’s face it, love isn’t easy.  Love is work, spiritual work that brings spiritual rewards, like safety, community, and, well, even joy.  There’s no joy without love.

So when joy breaks out – as it did at our assembly when nothing was resolved, our work unfinished, and the larger challenges as challenging as ever – when joy breaks out we know that God is there and that love has found us.

We had a good run at our synod assembly (my cynical side wants to add, for once)  but what was true in Tarrytown is also true here in Middle Village: we’re not here to make it up and it doesn’t depend on us.  We are here to be found by God, filled with the spirit by God, awakened to love … by God.   When that happens – and it does happen here among us, more and more I think – that’s the whole enchilada.  God is here, and nothing can stand that stands in the way of God’s love.  Love one another fulfills the law and opens the gospel.  That’s really all we know, and all we need to know.

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