Certainly Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and the Rev. Cindy Kohlmann would have liked to have ended their official duties as Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly under happier circumstances.
The opening worship of the 224th General Assembly Friday morning found the duo delivering their final sermon remotely as the gathering has been forced to go online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And as the United States struggles with all the ramifications of the health crisis, it now also faces what seems to be a decisive reckoning with decades of racism and violence.
It made the Old Testament words from Lamentations 5: 20-21, “Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—,” sound as contemporary as the latest headlines on the New York Times’ website.
Cintrón-Olivieri and Kohlmann seemed determined not to leave the church in that sort of despair as they bowed out.
They repeatedly returned to the Ephesians 3 passage, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,” in their final moments speaking to a church that has spent the last several months struggling with extraordinary circumstances and searching for profound change.
But to get to that hope, they said the church needs to take an important step.
“It is not the words of lament that catch our attention in today’s text, but the words ‘seeking restoration,’” Cintrón-Olivieri said. “‘Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored…’ In order to be restored, we must lament, yes, but we must also repent. In order for us to be restored to the Lord, we must confess all the ways in which we have broken trust with God and with neighbor. Lamentation can only lead to restoration if we first journey through confession and repentance.”
Kohlmann continued, “That journey has many layers, personal, professional, communal, and ecclesiastical. Each of us individually journey through confession and repentance, even as the local church we serve and the denomination we belong to also undertake this journey. But we do not lament alone, we do not confess alone, we do not repent alone: we do so in community and in the presence of our Almighty God who alone has the power to accomplish full restoration.”
The journey we find ourselves on today is not all that different from that of the early church portrayed in Ephesians, she said, struggling with including Jewish and gentile Christian communities. In times such as these, the Co-Moderators said, it is natural to feel overwhelmed and bewildered — stuck in a moment.
Cintrón-Olivieri took many listeners back to the vows all ordained Presbyterian leaders make: “Will you pray for and serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? We all said, ‘yes.’”
The service included Holy Communion led by Kohlmann, Cintrón-Olivieri, and Ruling Elder Sounghee Baranowski of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Joppa, Maryland, one of numerous nods to Baltimore, the originally scheduled host city for the General Assembly before the assembly was forced to go online. There was also music from Catonsville Presbyterian Church, First & Franklin Presbyterian, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Christa Burns of the Presbytery of Baltimore participated, and the Youth Rising Coalition received the offering.
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), delivered an opening prayer that set the tone for the morning.
“You have heard our whispers and murmurs at the pain that fills our souls,” Nelson prayed, in part. “The joys of our hearts have ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning. Yet, we thank you for bringing us to this place of worship and discernment, of uncertainty and hope about the future.”
The future at this General Assembly will be carried on by newly elected Co-Moderators Elona Street-Stewart, executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, and the Rev. Gregory Bentley, pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.
But the outgoing Co-Moderators — who liked to refer to themselves as the Co-Mods — said the stage has been set for hope in the church, including the embrace of the Matthew 25 invitation by more than 500 congregations and mid councils (presbyteries and synods).
“Let us rise up, PC(USA), to fulfill the hope of our calling,” Kohlmann said, with Cintrón-Olivieri echoing in Spanish. “And it is a promise, it is a promise we can stand on, that we can build our lives on, that we can rely on: By the power at work within us, our God will indeed do abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”