Preaching at the closing worship service here of the five-day Mid Council Leaders Gathering of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reverend Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, asked attendees, “Is today’s outcome determined by what has already happened?”
Spencer began his sermon, titled “What’s Past Is Prologue,” with a reading of the genealogy in Matthew 1:1–17, “The very first words of our New Testament, [that] have never made it into the reading of our Common Lectionary.”
Framing Jesus within the context of Israel’s history, Spencer wondered if Matthew’s gospel is setting an expectation for what was to come in Jesus’ life. Did the telling of Jesus’ genealogy give insight to Matthew’s thesis—possibly that Jesus was the culmination of this earthly and holy history?
That history, he said, was not always faithful to the ideals of biblical justice or even social norms—calling attention to the many instances of misogyny, sexual abuse, murder, and other sins that were present in some of those named in the genealogy.
“This Jesus is a particular person with a particular, and particularly complicated, family story,” said Spencer, saying this history was somehow redeemed in the work of Jesus.
Speaking on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, he also noted the complex history of John Calvin as a person who “preach[ed] grace and excommunicate[ed] hundreds of those who disagreed with him,” noting, “Executions for heresy increased in Calvin’s Geneva.”
Spencer then turned his attention to the complicated history of U.S. Presbyterianism, founded 300 years ago by Scottish immigrants in Philadelphia. Over these years the denomination has divided several times—over slavery, evolution, and women’s ordination.
“It is still harder for a woman to find a call to the most prominent pulpits,” he said. “It is women who are more likely to be treated to the shameful practice of contract [rather than installed pastoral] leadership that denies them ordination.”
Saying the struggle isn’t over, Spencer said recent disagreements in the church over LGBT inclusion and racial justice were indicators that the church is still reforming. “For our LGBT brothers and sisters, the fact on the ground is that we have miles to go,” and, “Despite our conscious rejection of discrimination, we remain a 91 percent white denomination,” he said.
Spencer spoke of his complex personal history, with one side of his family having roots in the westward expansion of the United States and the other as slave-owning secessionists prior to and during the American Civil War.
“My own personal heritage is very complicated in deed—it is woven with great deeds and great shame,” he said, noting his father’s work in the civil rights movement as a turning point for that heritage.
“Each of us has a history, our church has a history, our Lord, Jesus Christ, had a history,” said Spencer. “Our history is real and past actions reverberate through generations. But our history doesn’t have to be determinate of who we are or how we behave.”
Following the sermon, the service continued with a reaffirmation of baptism, recognizing the symbols of cleansing and new life in the ritual.
“We are baptized into Christ our Lord, in whom all things are made new,” Spencer concluded in his benediction. “So, for us, the past is not necessarily prologue.”