As a deeply evocative and lyrical liturgy led some 500 online worshipers at the 225th General Assembly down a quiet, gentle path on Wednesday morning, the road at once became riskier as the Rev. Kate Murphy stepped into the virtual pulpit.
Murphy, pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C. — a diverse congregation that resulted from the transformed former Hickory Grove Presbyterian Church — took on the challenging story in Acts 9:1–9 in her sermon “The Good News of Damascus.”
Inspired by the GA225 theme of “From Lament to Hope,” the worship services throughout the assembly each, in their own way, acknowledge the difficult times the church and nation are experiencing while also raising up reasons for hope.
For Murphy, those difficult times are the very present moment.
“I believe that we Presbyterians are like Saul on the road to Damascus,” she began. “We are educated, we are cultured … sincere, efficient and excellent. And we are absolutely convinced that we do the will of God, as all the while we are violently resisting the saving work of God in Christ.”
Using the Damascus road as an apt metaphor for the PC(USA)’s current predicament and challenge — especially in light of the denomination’s having done “great and grievous harm to the Lord’s beloved” — Murphy asserted that it is the risen Christ “who has stopped us [Presbyterians] on our path,” insisting the PC(USA) can no longer do what it has done in the past.
“It’s the Lord blocking our path of perpetual Presbyterianism,” she preached. “It’s the Lord in our path saying, ‘Why, why are you persecuting me?’”
Laying out the long, celebrated history and impact of Presbyterians in government, education and health care, Murphy said the evils associated with imperial colonialism were also “created and justified” by the denomination.
“The history of violent white supremacy and white American Christianity are the same history,” she preached. “We can’t claim the beauty of our heritage without also claiming the violence. It justified us then, and it forms us now.”
Just like Saul, Murphy said, Presbyterians are being called to lay everything down — “the expertise, the power … everything we hold dear, we are called to lay down, most of all, our Presbyterian pride; God is calling us to surrender it all …. We start today, and we start blind; and that’s not punishment. It’s a gift that reveals the truth to us.”
Murphy said that she knows the story of Saul on the road to Damascus so well because it was — and is — her and her small urban congregation’s story.
Called to serve a congregation that is not what it was, Murphy said the church was “headed on the old way,” even though it is located in a diverse and vibrant neighborhood.
“In my pride and arrogance and certainty, I thought that I would show up and make the difference,” she said. “When we couldn’t carry on, we were called to transformation. There was no other way. We were called to lay down everything that we knew how to do. We were called to begin anew as beginners, weak and foolish, of becoming church with our neighbors.”
As the church was dying, Murphy said that the elders would not let her quit but rather claim the power in dying, “to choose what story our death will tell.”
“They died like fools trying to become multigenerational and multiethnic,” she proposed, “so that even our death [would] bear witness to the glory and beauty of God.”
And today, as the Spirit continues to send “other radical people to join us,” Murphy said that the church hasn’t “managed to die yet.”
“We’re still here,” she preached. “Solely, slowly by the power of God, we are becoming the church that we couldn’t be … [thanks to] a God who stops us on the road to death so that we can be led back on the road to new life and to sight. ... We are the people of the resurrection, and that only happens on the other side of death.”
Murphy made it clear that her words would likely sound like “pathetic, naïve foolishness” to hearers who are part of financially stable congregations. But for those serving in “can anything good come from Nazareth” kinds of churches, she promised good news in “the narrow path that leads you on the road to Jesus.”
Stating that the PC(USA)’s “Damascus moment” isn’t a call for despair but rather for rejoicing, Murphy concluded with the good news that “because the Lord has graciously halted us, we can turn away from who we were.”
“I don’t have a plan or a policy or an agenda,” she said, “just an invitation for all of us individually and collectively to seek the Lord, to inquire of the Holy Spirit to show me my sin, to show me where I have persecuted the Lord, whom I thought I was serving …. When Saul finally saw in his blindness that he was not serving the God whom he loved, he repented and accepted new life as a gift. He became radically new.”
If even Saul could be redeemed by the power and love of God, Murphy said the time is now for our full and utter repentance. “Not so we can be great again in the eyes of the world, but so that God can be great in our eyes,” she said. “Because, beloved, the life that God is calling us to is so much better than the life that God is calling us from.”