10 July 2012

Walking, Running, Soaring in Hope

Isaiah 40: 21-31

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost/ 8th July 2012

Walking, Running, Soaring in Hope.  This was the theme, the text of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), held in Pittsburgh this past week.  Just less than 900 elected commissioners and advisory delegates from every presbytery came from north, south, east, and west to discern together the mind of Christ for the PC (U.S.A.).

As always, I’m grateful to the Session and the congregation for giving me the time and the financial support to attend the General Assembly as part of my terms of call.  Many years ago I learned that the General Assembly is the best place to see the Presbyterian Church at work; it’s the best place to have a sense of the larger church, the national church, the global witness of the Reformed Church in the world.  I’ve been to so many GA’s that they feel like a family reunion of sorts. And I’m grateful to work with and know extraordinary Presbyterians, teaching elders and ruling elders alike who are passionately committed to the church of Jesus Christ and our unique perspective of the faith as Presbyterians. 

            The Assembly concluded yesterday morning, after going for a very late night/ early morning session, adjourning at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, making for a long Friday that started around 9:30 a.m., working all the way through.  Catonsville Presbyterian Church should be very proud and grateful for the service and witness rendered by David Hutton, one of our elected commissioners from Baltimore Presbytery to GA.  He served on the Mid-Councils Committee, one of the most important committees at this Assembly, considering the future of synods in the denomination and whether we should have non-geographic presbyteries.  I heard through friends working with the committee that David was a rock star. They were grateful for his leadership. After worship this morning, we’ll take some time to provide a very broad overview of what happened this past week.  Most of the reports and a summary of the actions can be found online through the Presbyterian News Service.

“This assembly’s theme, ‘walking, running, soaring into hope’ (Isaiah 40:31) was a fitting description of the assembly in many ways. At one level, the commissioners worked tirelessly…and doing so with much energy and passion. At a deeper level, the deliberations and discernment of this assembly reflect a church that is endeavoring to know how to demonstrate faithfully and effectively the gospel of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.”[1]

Here are some of the highlights:

Worship – “The assembly paused daily in the midst of its business, in the same space, to worship. Each of the preachers used the same text, Mark 2:1-12, chosen by outgoing GA Moderator, Cindy Bolbach. Commissioners and advisory delegates prayed and sang often, using selections from the upcoming new hymnal from the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Glory to God, which the assembly voted to commend to the church.”

Business – The assembly addressed roughly 800 items of business in the form of overtures, reports, commissioner resolutions and more.

Definition of marriage – The assembly chose not to change the current definition of marriage that is in the PC (USA) constitution, namely, that marriage is a civil contract “between a man and a woman.” Rather, through its action to approve a two-year study, the assembly is inviting the entire church to engage in serious, deliberate conversation on this issue. There was widespread coverage of this decision in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided the best overview.  Although we don’t have the influence upon American culture as we once did, people still pay attention when the Presbyterian Church acts and speaks on controversial issues.

In the meantime, in places where same-sex marriage is legal teaching elders (pastors) are now in an even greater, tighter bind, caught between honoring the policies of the denomination and caring for gay and lesbian Presbyterians who enter into a covenant of marriage and want to have their pastors bless their relationship.  Presently, do to so would expose a pastor to disciplinary actions by the church.  Some were pushing for the Assembly to offer an Authoritative Interpretation (AI), which would have given protection to pastors and alleviate the crisis of conscience.  Unfortunately, in the end, the Assembly was not willing to consider that, a decision that has already caused considerable pain for some Presbyterians.  The Young Adult Advisory Delegates and the Theological Seminary Advocates both overwhelmingly advised for approving the change. They have voice, but not vote in plenary.  They are the future the church and they provide of glimpse of where the Church is moving.  For some, it’s not happening fast enough and they will leave. 

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, of which this church is a covenant member, and on whose board I serve, was pushing for an AI and not for a change in the definition of marriage, primarily because we as a denomination are still living into the new ordination standards for gay and lesbian Christians in the PC (USA). My guess is that over the next two years there will be more pastors ignoring the denomination’s policies and officiating at same-gender marriages.

Middle East – The assembly chose not to divest from three companies participating in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Rather, the assembly voted “to pursue a positive and creative course of action with respect to the current Palestinian/Israeli conflict,” and to “devise a plan of active engagement and projects that will support collaboration among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.” The assembly also approved a boycott on “all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Heidelberg & Belhar — The assembly voted to approve a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism from the 16th century Protestant Reformation and requested that the Belhar Confession from South Africa, which emerged in response to the end of Apartheid, be add to our Book of Confessions.  Both of these actions will be sent to presbyteries for their ratification.

Mid-Councils – By mid councils, we mean presbyteries and synods.  There was a proposal to remove synods and to allow for non-geographic presbyteries.  The synods remain, but there will be fewer ones with new geographic boundaries.  The assembly rejected the idea of non-geographic presbyteries.  This was a veiled attempt, by some, to organize presbyteries around theological viewpoints, around ideology, instead of geography.  It was soundly rejected. 

1001 Movement – The assembly overwhelmingly supported a movement to create 1001 worshiping communities (www.onethousandone.org). Those communities of faith will perhaps look much different from traditional congregations, but those that are already underway—in coffee shops, shopping malls, even on bicycles—are changing the world and the church for the sake of the gospel. We are in a new world.  If people aren’t coming to worship in the church, then the church has to go to where the people are.

            Depending upon one’s perspective, our commissioners and the church as a whole spent the week walking and running.  But, soaring?  I’m not so sure.  Hopeful? Absolutely.  But soaring?  My sense, as an observer, David might or might not agree, is that this assembly was trying to do no harm, playing it safe, being respectful of those churches and presbyteries that are on edge of leaving, waiting to see what this GA would do.   Depending upon your perspective, it looks like little happened, particularly around the marriage definition.  Two years ago, using parliamentary procedure to block business, the assembly didn’t even want to discuss the question of marriage.  This year, it was the same.  I sat in the committee, I heard the debate – or lack thereof, really.  The assembly was reluctant to have a discussion about giving relief to some pastors.  Again, over the next two years, more and more pastors will be forced to act in violation of what the courts of the church have decided. 

            On Friday evening, my good friend, Jeff Krehbiel, a pastor in DC, Sue Krehbiel’s brother, a commissioner, posted on his Facebook page from his seat in the plenary hall. Surrounded by all kinds of junk food to keep him going, he reached for some Dove chocolate.  Dove chocolates have those wonderful quotes on the inside of the foil wrapper.  He reached for a chocolate, unwrapped the foil, and read the quote.  It said, “Be fearless.”  He wrote, “Really sad when a candy company can be more prophetic than the church.”  Someone else on his page posted, “…like a might turtle so moves the church of God….” 

            Personally speaking, just once I would like to see us lead the way on social justice issues instead of following the culture’s lead.  No wonder we have lost our moral voice in the culture.  How is it that the wider society is becoming more inclusive and loving than the church?  Another friend, Margaret Aymer, an African-American professor of New Testament at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, posted on Twitter:  “Remember:  Early incarnations of the Presbyterian Church voted for slavery, against ordination of women, and for segregation.  God wins.”

            “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  So said Dr. King (1929-1968).  We move step, by step, confident, not despairing, knowing that God is at work within us and among us and slowly leading us where we need to go.  In this we soar and hope.

            For me, the highlight of the week was worship last Sunday at East Liberty Presbyterian Church.  Close to 700 gathered in their magnificent Gothic sanctuary, built by the Mellon family.  Randy Bush, the pastor, also on the Covenant Network board, preached.  Brass players from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra offered the prelude; brass and organ lead the congregation is a glorious processional hymn.  I thought I was going to burst with joy and love and gratitude in praise to the God who calls us first to praise, to worship, to celebrate the inexorable grace shown to us in Jesus Christ.  And I thought I would burst with pride, surrounded by all those Presbyterians, in a service of beautiful liturgy.  A new anthem was composed for the occasion.  We had music from Taiz√© and pieces sung in Kiswahili.  But it was a video that Randy showed prior to the sermon that perhaps moved me the most and brought many of us to tears. 

            It was the latest release of Matt Harding’s dance video “Where in the hell is Matt?” 2012.  The video consists of Matt dancing a funny dance with people – he’s not really a great dancer – in small groups and in enormous crowds with people all around the world, children, adults, all shapes and sizes and religions and races in a celebration of the human spirit caught up in the dance, the dance that moves us all forward toward the life God wants for all of humanity.  There’s one poignant scene in which he’s dancing with people in wheelchairs.  He’s dancing in Kigali, Rwanda; Dresden, Germany; Damascus, Syria (the dancers have their faces blurred to keep them anonymous); Erbil, Iraq; Kabul, Afghanistan; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; the Gaza Strip; Thailand, North Korea, Philippines, South Africa, Cairo, Athens, Rome, and even Patterson Park, Baltimore.  Some are dangerous places, impoverished places, places of untold pain and suffering, but also places of joy and happiness.  I’m not exactly sure why it speaks to so many people – I was a wreck watching it – I’m not sure what’s at the root of the emotions it releases, but it’s profound and uplifting and it celebrates the thread that binds the human spirit together.  The video is set to music, a song, “Trip the Light,” co-authored by Matt.  By trip he means to turn on the light. Here are the lyrics:

If all the days that come to pass
Are behind these walls
I’ll be left at the end of things
In a world kept small

Travel far from what I know
I’ll be swept away
I need to know
I can be lost and not afraid

We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light

Remember we’re lost together
Remember we’re the same
We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts
We hold the flame

We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light

I’ll find my way home
On the Western wind
To a place that was once my world
Back from where I’ve been

And in the morning light I’ll remember
As the sun will rise
We are all the glowing embers
Of a distant fire

We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light[2]

            I wish the entire Assembly could have seen it, the entire Church needs to see it, for the gospel, the good news, is embedded in his message (I’m not sure if he’s a Christian or not, it doesn’t matter), it gives a glimpse of what the human spirit is looking for; it allowed me and others to soar with hope for the new thing God is doing in our midst.  For the dance continues and nothing can stop it. Thanks be to God.

[1]From a Churchwide Pastoral Letter from the 220th General Assembly.  Throughout, I rely on the letter for a succinct overview of business approved by the Assembly.  http://www.pcusa.org/news/2012/7/9/churchwide-pastoral-letter-220th-general-assembly/
[2] “Trip the Light,” by Alicia Hempke and Matt Harding; Music by Gary Schyman.

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