Trumpets sounded, flutes trilled, timpani pounded and organ filled the hall. Even cowbell could be heard amongst the joyful noise. Over 4000 people from north, south, east, and west streamed into the hall. After preludes by a mass choir, a jazz band, and various instruments, ruling elder Cindy Bolbach, Moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) called the220th General Assembly to order and then immediately to worship. “Our first act as the assembly is to worship God together. It is in worship that, above all else, we come together to be who God calls us to be… that particular body of Jesus Christ known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
The opening procession was led by Joanne Rogers, wife of the Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian pastor who starred in the children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Presbytery banners followed behind liturgical dancers twirling colorful ribbons that were placed on the cross. Worship continued with diverse music, color and dance. Young adult advisory delegate Hannah Harwerth (Eastern Oregon Presbytery) responded later, “There were so many people worshipping all at once… it was really amazing to hear all of the responsive prayers and songs… most people like me from small towns don’t get to experience that.”
After the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 40:28-31, the theme of this Assembly), Mark 2:1-12 was read by the Rev. Landon Whitsitt, vice moderator of the 219th General Assembly. Bolbach then preached on the same text referenced in her platform speech as candidate for moderator two years ago. Her focus from the text in 2010 was on the paralyzed man, suggesting that the PC(USA) was the paralyzed one suffering fatigue over constant battles, uncertainty and fear over the effective proclamation of the gospel in the 21st century.
“Two years later, I have a different focus and a different point of view,” she said. “I do not believe the PC(USA) is paralyzed … although we are light years removed from the 1950s during which denominationalism and church structure thrived, we are actively engaged and concerned with what God would have us do and be.”
“At the heart of the gospel, at the heart of each community of faith that seeks to proclaim the gospel, is not structure or Form of Government. At the heart of the gospel lie disciples like these in Mark who are willing to take risks, willing to do whatever it takes to help others see Jesus. Not just [carry] those whom they like, but maybe even [carrying] those they don’t know, those they don’t like. Willing to go up to the roof, willing to cut a hole in it.”
She continued, “Over the past two years, I have seen those disciples at work in every nook and cranny in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) … and over the past few months, I have felt those disciples. While struggling with cancer, I have been uplifted and supported by those disciples. Many disagree with me, but they have reached out to help me to the roof, and carried me to see Jesus…. None of [our disagreements] matter without disciples who are wiling to take risks for the sake of the gospel. Let’s not worry about process and structure; instead, let’s pray that we will be given the faith that Jesus saw in those disciples. Let’s commit ourselves to be those disciples who will take risks, who will carry others up to the roof…. If we commit ourselves to lift someone we don’t know, someone we don’t like, we will soar on wings like eagles, we will run and not grow weary, we will walk and not grow faint because we will be helping people see Jesus. What more could we ask for?”
Commissioner Aaron Doll (Genessee Valley) said afterwards, “I noted her change of thought that we are the friends and bystanders lowering others and thus taking risks. As we face very controversial issues this week, we see that it’s risky either way. There will be people unhappy and outright hurt either way we go. We are at a point where we can’t help but take risks. I’m ready to jump into that with both feet. I came ready to do that. Her words reaffirmed that for me.”
Bolbach was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. Her determination to be present at the Assembly was obvious; although weakened by treatment, she preached with strong voice and heart. Just before the call to worship, Sheldon Sorge, executive presbyter for Pittsburgh Presbytery, invited attendees to honor her by standing and (in a surprise to Bolbach) don bright [Bolbach] green tinsel wigs. The poignant moment was a reminder of our humanity at the beginning of the business-laden meeting.