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Preacher to Presbyterian older adult conference: get back to the basics


Tells attendees: ‘We need your wisdom’

 By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Robert Watkins (right), who gave the opening message at the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministry conference, sings in worship. Photo by Paul Seebeck

ZEPHYR COVE, Nev. – In his opening sermon at the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN) national conference, the Rev. Robert Watkins told attendees at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center that we in the church and culture — which is consumed with self — have forgotten how to live with and talk to each other.

“Our president says he will pardon himself. Think about that,” said Watkins, who is executive director of Sacramento Presbytery. “From top to bottom, the self rules everything.”

As a metaphor for our life in Jesus Christ and journey together in our current environment, Watkins spoke about the discomfort of modern travel. On a recent flight he was astonished when the passenger in the row in front turned around and said to him, “I’m going to lean my seat back. Is that OK?”

“In North Carolina where I was raised, we call that manners,” he said to great laughter.

“It shouldn’t have been such a profound moment. We have so much work to do.”

Watkins preached from 1 Timothy 5:1–2, in which the apostle Paul encourages the early church in Ephesus to not speak harshly to one another. Paul tells them to speak to older men and women as if they were their mother or father — and to younger women and men as if they were their sister or brother.

Growing up in a small town as a Presbyterian pastor’s son, Watkins remembers what it was like to feel like he was part of a larger family, with 175 mothers and fathers watching him. He said he didn’t do many things wrong in high school because he felt like the church members had a connection to every person in town, and he kept his head down when he did misbehave. But as soon as he enrolled in seminary, right out of college, his church asked him to give a homecoming sermon.

“It was absolute foolishness,” he said. “I knew nothing and got up and preached the single worst sermon ever in the PC(USA).”

He felt defeated and crushed as he left the pulpit. Yet in the receiving line, he got hug after hug and heard words of encouragement such as “you are our child, we love and care for you, you will do just fine.”

Now 30 years into ministry, Watkins said that has come true — he is doing just fine. Why? Because everywhere he’s been, the church has been like this kind of family.

But in the past eight years, just like families sometimes do, Watkins has seen churches fight. The Presbytery of Sacramento has ended up with a remarkably diverse family.

“Because we know what it’s like to fall apart, we want to be together now,” he said.

Some of the presbytery’s 29 congregations have brothers and sisters that look like Watkins, others speak different languages such as Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesian and Spanish — representing just some of the 118 languages spoken within the presbytery boundaries.

On the flight where the woman asked Watkins if it was OK if she leaned her seat back, there was a thunderstorm going on. As the plane was about to land, it suddenly veered sharply — with the passengers going the other way.

To the right of Watkins were two pilots who started laughing — and then one said to other, “I don’t think he’s going to land on this run.”

“What did those pilots, in their wisdom, do for us?” Watkins asked. “They set hundreds of minds at ease.

“How can you do that?  Read Paul’s encouragement to the early church again. May we do so,” he said.

“As our older adults, you are our elders. We need your wisdom. As we start treating each other with love, care and devotion, that will change things. That will alter things. That will transform things.”

The POAMN conference continues through Friday, June 8.

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