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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Place at the Table, Part Three
July 14, 2016

In this post-General Assembly series on “A Place at the Table,” we have considered both the enlargement of our leadership table and our commitment to include in our membership the full array of diverse people that the Lord welcomes to his Table. I noted in last week’s letter that, while we pay lip-service to racial diversity, we have a long way to go to become a community where all races are fully woven into one fabric – a point that was tragically underscored by the eruption of a series of race-laden killings by and of police officers over the 48 hours following that posting. Let us be perfectly clear: When it comes to the matter of racial inclusivity, our table as a church is nowhere near being an authentic reflection and exhibition of our Lord’s Table. While our society as a whole is rife with injustice and violence over which we cannot be silent, we must recognize that judgment begins at the house of God. (1 Peter 4:17) The church cannot continue setting justice and reconciliation within its own precincts on the back burner.

Today we consider how we set the table for those who are outside our walls. This month’s emphasis on our annual prayer calendar is on world mission, especially as we prepare for the visit this month of our international mission partners from Malawi and South Sudan. Part of their visit will coincide with the annual New Wilmington Mission Conference.

Mission lies at the heart of the church’s purpose. “Go” is the operative word in Jesus’ “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19). The church’s first priority is to go into the world, rather than to provide sanctuary from the world.

The way we set the table for outsiders is often little more than an invitation to adjust themselves to our own cherished menus and manners. It is less “come as you are” than it is “come and be like us.”

One of Jesus’ most significant table stories is about a banquet which all the invitees declined to attend for one reason or another. So the host sent a servant into the streets to persuade people of every kind to come to the feast, rather than simply waiting for those on the original invitation list to show up. (Luke 14:15-24)

A member of the PNC that nominated me to serve as their pastor became one of my dearest friends.  Yet I struggled with her deep commitment to “This is how we have always done things.” When I arrived as pastor, she proudly presented me a copy of the denomination’s hymnal that she had prepared especially for me – she had circled each of the hymns “that we know and love” so I would know which ones to select for worship. Only a minority of the hymnal’s selections made the cut. I immediately knew that she was someone I wanted on our worship committee – I did not want to be wondering about how she felt about this or that aspect of our worship life. I wanted to know it straight and upfront.

After I had been there for a couple of years, I ventured to suggest to our worship committee that we might consider changing some of what we did in worship in order to be more welcoming to people different from us. She did not mean to be unkind in her response: “Well certainly the church should be welcoming to such folk. But if people want something different from what we offer, let them to go to the church down the street.” Her rejoinder reflected the approach of many of our congregations – we sincerely want to welcome outsiders, but only if they are ready to become like us.

Are we willing to adapt to those whom we are seeking to reach for Jesus’ sake? Or does our outreach carry the expectation that any who would come to our table need to accommodate themselves to our cherished norms?

Christian mission, as practiced in the early church, is something quite different. Paul, its great champion, says that he is willing to become all things to all people in order to reach them with the good news of the Gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:22) How is it for us?

Yours in Christ’s mission,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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