More than 3,000 people gathered in the Oregon Convention Center Saturday morning for the opening worship service of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Commissioners, advisory delegates, other assembly participants, and members of Presbyterian congregations from across the Northwest heard a rousing call to live God’s message of reconciliation.
They were joined by groups of Presbyterians from across the country, as well as at least one person in Scotland and another in Lebanon, who participated via live-streaming technology.
Artistic representations of cathedral windows surrounded the expansive plenary hall worship space. Images of chaos and beauty served as visual reminders of the creation of life amid the world’s present state of crisis.
In his call to worship, outgoing General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada proclaimed, “This is a glorious day for our Presbyterian family, and may it be a glorious day for our world.” Worshipers experienced a musical extravaganza: soaring organ and piano notes, bells, and vocals of a mass choir from Portland-area churches, as well as the clap-inducing guitar chords and drumbeats of the Winter Street Worship Band from First Presbyterian Church in Salem.
Preaching from Genesis 45:1–15, Rada said the biblical story of the estrangement of Joseph and his brothers is especially relevant at this moment in history.
“We’ve seen our world divided,” he said. “We’ve seen our church divided. We’ve lived through Orlando. We too have found ourselves estranged—at odds with one another over theological and social issues.”
But just as God worked to reconcile Joseph and his brothers, Rada said, “we’re here today to be reconciled, to love one another.”
In his travels across the church during his two years as Moderator, Rada said he was surprised to see “much more focus on love and grace and acceptance around the Communion table than on division.”
Of course, the divisions are still there, he added, “but why must we expend so much more energy on our divisions than on looking at what unites us?”
Rada invited worshipers to visualize God’s reconciling love as Jesus described it in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32): “God is running down the road right this minute to embrace us. Don’t let our arguments overshadow the gift of acceptance we’ve been given.”
Reinforcing Rada’s message, worshipers were asked to turn their backs to the center of the room during the Call to Confession, then to turn to face the center, and each other, for the Assurance of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.
The service included a commissioning of advisory delegates and commissioners for their work at the General Assembly. Those being commissioned said together a passage from the Confession of 1967 — a confession that Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons reminded everyone “was born in this city 50 years ago” — the last time a Presbyterian General Assembly was held in Portland.
The service’s offering was earmarked for the Peace and Global Witness Offering, one of four Special Offerings of the PC(USA).
Jana Childers, the dean of San Francisco Theological Seminary, joined Rada in officiating at a celebration of Communion that closed the service. As worshipers lined up to receive the bread and cup, they reached out to one another with hugs, handshakes, and words of reconciliation:
“In Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Thanks be to God.”