The Presbytery of Tampa Bay met at the First Presbyterian Church in Dunedin on Thursday, Feb. 20, with commissioners gathering first in the sanctuary for worship and the morning portion of the meeting. I had the honor of preaching, and after a conversation with the Presbytery leadership about what kind of message would be most meaningful, chose Deuteronomy 30:15-20 from the previous Sunday’s lectionary and Romans 12:1-2, the anchoring passage for the upcoming General Assembly, as my texts.
Briefly, I put the admonition to choose life and blessing from Deuteronomy in conversation with the exhortation not to be conformed to the world, but transformed in order to understand the will of God. The world understands life and blessing very differently than God does, and so I spent some time comparing and contrasting what choosing life as God intends actually means in comparison. In the end, we cannot as Christians choose life and blessing that focus only on ourselves, either as individuals or as small communities or congregations. To truly choose whom we will serve, to fully choose life and blessing as God intends, we must pursue justice for all people, ensuring that every person has the opportunity to live in full and abundant ways. We must be transformed so that our offering ourselves as a living and holy sacrifice is in service to establishing God’s kingdom fully here on earth.
During worship, I had the joy of offering the commissioning prayer for the Presbytery’s commissioners and Young Adult Advisory Delegate, participating in the setting apart of this group of people for service. It’s been one of the honors of serving as co-moderator: taking part in installation and commissioning services as Presbyteries all across the country.
For lunch and the afternoon portion of the meeting, we moved to the church’s fellowship hall, where I gave an overview of the Neighborhood Church book. I also had an opportunity to re-connect with two ministers who had left the northeast, one from Boston and one from Northern New England, and had landed in ministry in the Presbytery of Tampa Bay. Yet another joy, seeing colleagues from all chapters of my ministry in these travels!
It was fun to see her Presbytery full of so much life and possibility, and to hear about the various ministries that help them be connected in mission beyond their own communities. One of the afternoon pieces was recognizing the retiring director of the Beth-El farmworker ministry, a significant effort to provide care and spiritual support to the families who harvest the citrus and other crops in central Florida. This is an example of what happens when the body of Christ seeks to choose life for everybody, for neighbors, and not just for self.
First thing Friday, we headed to New Tampa and St. Andrew Presbyterian Church for the orientation for General Assembly commissioners and Young Adult Advisory Delegates. We were joined by the delegation from Peace River Presbytery, which made for a fun morning.
It’s interesting reflecting on the assemblies I’ve been to, and what I know about the upcoming assembly in relation to what I knew before those assemblies. This time, I can talk about the preachers for the worship services, the Bible study leaders, some of the recommended changes to the Standing Rules, and other items related to the docket. It was fun to be able to answer some questions for the group with information that’s public but not yet distributed, like the fact that we will indeed have another Hands and Feet celebration Thursday night featuring live music.
It’s also fun to think that, in just a few months time, Vilmarie and I will see the people who’s elections and commissioning services we’ve been a part of, this time from the podium as we constitute the 224th General Assembly. There will be so many familiar faces in the plenary hall... that’s really cool to think about!
After the morning session, we headed back for the afternoon. Patrice had some work she needed to do, and I took advantage of a little free time to workout. The weather wasn’t conducive to getting outside, unfortunately, spitting rain and with wind over 20 miles an hour, but that’s why there are workout DVDs. I’ve found it helpful to have a personal trainer to give me that little extra motivational push, because otherwise I probably would have just relaxed on the couch and watched the palm trees in the wind.
Saturday ended up being beautiful, with the sun out and the wind calmed down to a slight breeze. I went for a run in the morning, and then we went to the Bok Tower Gardens for the afternoon. What a beautiful place! Lots of flowers were blooming, the carillon in the tower sounded every once in a while, and it was lovely wandering the paths for a few hours. Afterwards, Ron sat down at the piano and asked me to sing with him for a little while. Since he’s a professional singer, that was both intimidating and fun! A relaxing, spirit renewing day if there ever was one.
Which set me up perfectly for Sunday! I had the honor of preaching at First Presbyterian in Winter Haven, and they combined their three services into one, both to accommodate my afternoon flight and to make sure the whole church had an opportunity to gather together for my visit. The pastor had asked me to preach on Matthew 25, which I paired with Psalm 99 from the lectionary for Transfiguration Sunday.
For the first time, as I preached, I made the connection between Jesus’ words to those gathered to hear the parables from Matthew 25 with his own experience. The connection came to me in the middle of the sermon, which often happens as I preach, and I knew that it was a word meant for the congregation that morning. So I reminded them:
Jesus experienced all the things he describes in the parable of the judgment of the nations. When the sheep and the goats are gathered, and the Son of Man addresses them from the throne, his words remind us of his own life. Jesus was hungry, relying on people to feed him as he traveled between the towns. The story of the disciples stripping wheat while they walked through the fields backs up the hunger Jesus experienced. Jesus was thirsty, and on the cross he cried out, “I thirst!” Jesus was naked, with his clothing auctioned off and wagered away by those in power. Jesus was a stranger, run out of towns, uninvited in others, and betrayed by his closest friend. Jesus was in prison, arrested for causing political unrest, and the only person who visited him was Pilate. And Jesus was whipped and wounded, injured in body, in need of care.
The crowd listening to Jesus preach the parables of Matthew 25 wouldn’t have made those connections, but we can. And we are convicted that whenever we turn our faces aside, whenever we avert our eyes, whenever we look away and pass on by, we are turning away and walking away from Jesus.
After worship, the church had a lovely reception. Many people thanked me for the call for justice in the sermon, the call for the church to be doing to work that leads to a better society for everyone. Psalm 99:4 says, “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” We are the hands and feet of Christ who do that work of loving justice, establishing equity, and executing justice for all.
Because of the fear of winter break traffic, I was rushed out of the church right at 12:30 for my 3:00 flight out of Orlando. The airport was indeed a madhouse, but having TSA Pre-check made it easy. It took me longer to get a little something for lunch than it did to drop my bag and go through security! The trip home was uneventful, for which I was grateful, because Monday I’m back on the road to Seattle to visit my parents.
Thank you, Presbytery of Tampa Bay, for a wonderful visit!