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One last time, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) delivers like the prophets of old

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, preaches for the last time as Stated Clerk

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Two days short of retirement, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), preached during the Chapel Service Wednesday at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Randy Hobson)

LOUISVILLE — As he does frequently, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II spoke a prophetic word Wednesday during the Chapel Service at the Presbyterian Center and broadcast via Zoom. Wednesday’s service at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky, marked the final time Nelson will preach as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Nelson, who’s announced he is retiring June 30 as the PC(USA)’s top ecclesial officer, preached using Jeremiah 1:4-10, the account of the prophet’s call and commission, and Luke 4:21-30, the gospel writer’s account of Jesus speaking in his hometown synagogue. Nelson called his sermon “Standing Between Prophecy and Deliverance.” Watch the service here.

“The words of the prophets continue to remind us over and over again we are living in a world where there’s always motion and movement — sometimes not too good and sometimes to bring us back to who we are to be,” Nelson told members of the national staff gathered in the Chapel for weekly worship. “I am looking at people today who have said, ‘We are going through the vicissitudes of what it means to be the church.’ We struggle. We are flawed in so many ways … but the prophets remind us we belong to a higher power.”

We learn as we go, Nelson reminded those in the Chapel and those worshiping via Zoom. “The Bible says one thing and life says something different,” he said. Times of “complexity, brokenness, interruptions, hardship — even at the apex of what we believe will be a great opportunity to move forward … One of the greatest teachers we will ever have is life, and so we continue to live it day by day, not knowing what will happen. The prophets understood that,” and they were also certain that “God has more power than the principalities and the powers.”

The prophets, Jeremiah among them, did not hesitate to point out what wasn’t right, Nelson said. “They sound like us sometimes,” he said. “We curse and start to get angry. The prophets always had something difficult to say. The greatest struggle they had was figuring out who they are,” which can be our struggle too, Nelson said.

“We look back and say, ‘I wish I’d done that differently. I wish I’d listened to my mama and my daddy.’ We wonder, am I going to make it through? Yet we find a way through,” the Stated Clerk said. “Someone comes into our lives we didn’t expect. Something comes into our mind we never would have thought of alone.”

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, called his final sermon as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “Standing Between Prophecy and Deliverance.” (Photo by Randy Hobson)

Nelson called the prophets “some of the loneliest people on the face of the Earth.” Most wore odd clothes and spent much of their time pronouncing judgment on people if they — and especially their rulers — didn’t change their ways. Those in the Chapel Wednesday laughed when Nelson made this comparison: The prophets “would say, ‘Look what God can do for you!’ The people would say, ‘Look at what God did to you!’”

“The calling we have right now is to push through, to walk by faith and not by sight,” Nelson said. “We are in Church headquarters, but there really is only one headquarters — the place where God lives and moves and shapes our being.”

Prophets “were people who were punished over and over and over again trying to serve God. They struggled with what it meant to build a way of living commensurate with the one who wasn’t coming soon enough,” Nelson said. “Have you ever been there? Waiting on the Lord? They kept on proclaiming until something happened, and when it did, they lamented, because people were left behind.”

We, too, “live in a time when nothing is certain,” he said. “The prophets understood that God woke us up this morning, and so we’ve got to make the best of it today.” Their message: “Stop bellyaching about what you don’t have. Get up and use what you’ve got. It’s tormenting sometimes because we don’t have everything we think we need.”

Worshipers listened intently Wednesday to the last sermon the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, will preach as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (Photo by Randy Hobson)

The world is watching us, Nelson said.

“Once we accept the possibility of living in faith, we have already determined we are going to have trouble,” he said. “When we stop believing that we stop believing.”

“The faith road we have taken is not an easy one. We do our best and we still get cursed,” Nelson said. “We end up in places we don’t expect to be, and we never really learn the trade we’ve gotten into. It was always on-the-job training.”

“Jesus’ ministry reminds us of something else: At the core needs to be love that binds everything together,” Nelson said. “The ministry we serve in is not about the headquarters; it’s about the lives of people depending on us in order to make a difference where they are.”

In the Luke passage, Jesus talked about “faith and love and what it means to serve and to bear one another’s burdens, and they took him to a cliff and wanted to kill him,” Nelson noted. “If we live dangerously, we’re doing it right. It means we have to be willing to give up something, including our lives if necessary.”

“We who work for the Lord ought to be keeping the faith that keeps our lives going with energy and intelligence, love and forbearance, patience, kindness, goodwill and mercy that is needed in the world today,” he said. “It’ll come together if we are willing to take the risk of being misunderstood, even by those who supported us yesterday.”

“My prayer for this denomination,” said Nelson, first elected Stated Clerk in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, “is we step up to the spirit and power and love of God and carry that with us everywhere we go … What the world needs right now is spirit, people just like us who carry the gospel, believe in the faith and will give their lives over in service to the Lord.”

“That’s what the prophets did. That prophetic voice spoke truth to power … We’ve got work to do, my friends. God solicits our help and wants us on the team. Are we willing to give something in return for what God gives us?”

“This has been the best job I have ever loved, and I thank you for being a part. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

J. Herbert Nelson’s wife, the Rev. Gail Porter Nelson, was among those leading worship on Wednesday. (Photo by Randy Hobson)

Following Nelson’s sermon, those in worship laid hands on the Stated Clerk while the Rev. Mark Koenig and Flor Vélaz-Diáz prayed for him and his family. “For his commitment to and passion for the church of Jesus Christ, we thank you,” Vélaz-Diáz prayed. “For his energy, intelligence, imagination and love, we thank you.”

Others helping to lead the service included Nelson’s wife, the Rev. Gail Porter Nelson; the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo; the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett; Brunhilda Williams-Curington; the Rev. Tricia Dykers Koenig and Kevin Kouba, the music minister at Briargate Presbyterian Church in Louisville, who provided piano music throughout the service.

“Friends, go in peace — not as the world gives peace, but the peace open to each and every one of us,” Nelson said in his benediction. “May we never forget we don’t necessarily work for the Church. We work for the Lord. Go in peace, my friends.”

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