22 June 2014

Abounding in Hope

Romans 15:1-13

Second Sunday after Pentecost/ 22nd June 2014

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit,” (Romans 15:13).  

This was the text for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that convened this last week in Detroit, MI.  Ruling and teaching elder commissioners from 172 presbyteries, along with young adult advisory delegates, theological student advisory delegates, mission and ecumenical advisory delegates, gathered together in the Motor City to discern God’s will for the Presbyterian Church (USA).  And what a week it was. 

First, allow me to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to attend General Assembly as an observer.  As I shared with friends in Detroit and have said many times over the year, attending GA is the best place to see the Church at work. To walk around the exhibit hall and see all the ways this historic, influential denomination is having a profound impact upon the world, making a real difference in the lives of God’s people, working tirelessly for positive change, reformed and always being reformed—it’s inspiring to behold.

I’m a bit of a GA junkie.  This was my eleventh GA.  I was a young advisory delegate at the Biloxi Assembly (1987), where we voted to establish our national offices in Louisville.  I was a theological advisory delegate from Princeton Seminary at the Philadelphia Assembly (1989), when we celebrated our bicentennial.  I was a commissioner to the Charlotte Assembly (1998), and then, starting in 2001, in Louisville, I’ve attended every Assembly, but one (2008, San Jose). In two years we gather in Portland, Oregon.  In 2020, the Assembly will gather again in Baltimore.

The famous nineteenth century Presbyterian minister, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), founder of modern revivalism and leader in the Second Great Awakening, which swept through Upstate New York from 1825-1835, once said, in 1835, there’s “a jubilee in hell every year, about the time of the meeting of the General Assembly.”[1] Some are saying the same thing today, given what this year’s Assembly adopted and recommended to the presbyteries. And, yet, maybe, just maybe, “hell” might be a little more nervous given the bold, courageous, prophetic decisions of this Assembly.

It’s easy to turn the General Assembly into a “they,” an objective entity, making decisions apart from the rest of the Church.  It’s also easy to demonize the actions of the Assembly, depending upon your perspective.  My friend Laura Cheifetz, who works for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, shared a conversation she had with a Roman Catholic friend, a religious studies scholar, who said the PC(USA) is “shocking in the transparency of its governing structure and process. All open meetings, presence of advisory delegates from young people and other communions, and leadership shared equally between teaching and ruling elders (what other people might understand as pastors and church council leaders). Crazy!”

The GA is you and me, an equal number of ruling and teaching elders, elected by the 172 presbyteries—not to be our representatives, not to do our bidding (we’re not a representative democracy), but called to go and discern the voice of the Spirit, to listen and engage with fellow commissioners, to do difficult, necessary, important work, wrestling with the flesh and blood issues of our time.  Every commissioner to the GA works hard and returns home exhausted; this Assembly worked exceptionally hard trying to discern the will of God.

The same Spirit who rested upon Jesus when he said, quoting Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19), is the same Spirit resting on you and me, through the General Assembly, through the Church. This is our holy work. 
And because this Spirit is powerful and bold and good and loving and full of grace, we can abound with hope, we can venture forth into tomorrow, we can step out in confidence knowing that the Spirit leads the way.

It’s ludicrous to try to summarize the actions of the Assembly.  A summary of the Assembly’s actions is available here.

Dr. Heath Rada was elected moderator, a ruling elder from North Carolina.  He was formerly the president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond and is well known throughout the denomination.   He did a great job moderating the Assembly this week and keeping it on task. 

Two momentous, even historic decisions were made this week. One was on Thursday afternoon and the other on Friday evening. 

On Thursday, the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the largest Protestant denomination supporting same-gender marriage.  As of noon on Saturday (at the close of the GA), ministers are free to officiate at same-gender weddings in places where they’re legal and sessions are free to offer the use of their sanctuary for these services.  Ministers and sessions are free to do this—if they so wish.  It’s not mandatory.  Ministers and sessions can choose not to bless these marriages.  The Assembly took this action through what is called an Authoritative Interpretation (AI), which does not require approval or ratification from our presbyteries. 

This might sound like a bold step, and it is, but it was actually proposed to alleviate the tension and pressure (now) formerly faced by ministers serving places where same-gender marriage is legal, as in Maryland.  Many ministers (including your own) have been caught in a crisis of conscience, wanting to fulfill their pastoral responsibility to care for church members, but worried that doing so would lead to ecclesial charges filed against them.  Some have refused to officiate at same-gender weddings. Some have violated our Constitution as an act of conscience, as an act of pastoral commitment to their gay and lesbian members. And have been brought up on charges for doing so.  Thankfully, those days are now over. The Assembly approved this action (61%).

The Assembly also approved a change in the wording of our Directory for Worship, which is part of the Constitution, changing the description of marriage from “man and woman” to “two people, traditionally man and woman.” The Assembly approved this by 71%.  Now it goes to presbyteries for a vote. If it receives a simple majority, the Directory will then be changed.

This was the first time the Assembly took decisive action on this issue. The two previous Assemblies effectively rejected any change in the Directory for Worship and would not consider an AI.  Many expected, at a minimum, that an AI would pass this Assembly, with some doubt about the change to the definition of marriage getting passed.  Many were surprised by the final outcome.

The world took note: CNN, MSNBC, FOX, BBC News.  Other denominations are also watching us. Not everyone is happy about this decision.  More churches will leave the denomination, members will leave or probably drift away—and that will be deeply sad and unfortunate.  It needs to be said that there are plenty of Presbyterians (ministers, members, and churches) wounded by the denomination’s formerly exclusionary positions for the last forty years who didn’t leave (including me). Some did, but most stayed. 

It is important to note, however, that on Friday the two largest conservative affinity groups, Presbyterians for Renewal and the Fellowship of Presbyterians released a very gracious pastoral letter that is worthy of our attention.  While grieving the actions of the Assembly, it reads, “We are not here to fight and divide, but to continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to testify to the transforming power of his love that is available to everyone. We urge you in the strongest possible way to refrain from actions, attitudes, and language that would mar the image of Christ in your response to the Assembly’s actions. Let us commit to one another, and to Almighty God, that we will seek to embody the grace and love of our Savior across our theological differences, and in personal and congregational deliberations about our future in the PC (USA).” (I invite you to read the entire letter here.)

The other major issue—that actually officials in both Washington and Jerusalem were paying close attention to—was whether or not the Presbyterian Church (USA) would divest its holdings from three companies doing business in Israel: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions (worth approximately $21 million dollars).  This debate was intense. The Jewish lobby, both for and against divestment, was strong.  Two years ago the Assembly rejected divestment by three votes.  On Friday, by a seven-vote margin, the Assembly voted to divest in these three companies.  This decision made the cover of The NewYork Times on Saturday and was covered in the Israeli press. The reactions have been swift and harsh and even nasty.  Not surprisingly, the Presbyterian Church has been labeled anti-Semitic and condemned as a hate group.[2]  We are now the largest Protestant denomination to take such actions.  Once again, other denominations are taking note of what we have done.

It is extremely important to understand what the Assembly did and didn’t do. The PC(USA) is not divesting from Israel, but from three corporations with which the Church has tried to engage constructively for ten years, specifically around how they profit from Israel's occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. The PC(USA) is not anti-Israel. The PC(USA) is not associated with the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement, despite what you might hear or read in the press. The PC(USA) affirms Israel’s right to exist.  The PC(USA) supports a two-state solution.  The PC (USA) calls for travel to the Holy Land and for increased inter-religious dialogue.  The PC(USA) encourages “positive investment” in Israel, for both Israelis and Palestinians. We chose not to continue to profit from violence and destruction. It’s important to know this because the media’s coverage of church decisions is often inaccurate, misleading and just wrong. The moderator was interviewed on CNN early Sunday morning.  This is a nuanced decision—Presbyterians are nuanced people and nuance is often a challenge for many, including the media.[3]

The PC(USA) made international headlines twice this week.  What the world didn’t hear about, but what you need to know, is that there were many other GA actions that give witness to the Spirit’s work among us and give us hope:  The GA resoundingly affirmed that gun violence is a public health crisis in the United States that is not being adequately addressed. Did you know that 30,000 people a year are killed by guns in the United States?  The Assembly proposed a list of seven actions, including encouraging churches to declare themselves gun-free zones.  The Assembly approved a report “Tax Justice: A Christian Response to a New Gilded Age,” offering recommendations seeking a fairer tax system in the United States.

For me, among the most moving moments of the week (and there were many) centered around the Belhar Confession from South Africa. I spent most of my time this week observing the Theological Issues and Institutions Committee as it discussed Belhar.  What is Belhar?  It’s a confession from the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa that addresses the sin of racism in the church and calls for reconciliation, justice, and healing. "We believe...that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands," Belhar attests, "namely against injustice and with the wronged." 

The Assembly recommended (86%) to the presbyteries that Belhar be included in our Book of Confessions, thus making it part of the Constitution of the PC(USA).  We studied this document several years here at CPC.  It’s a profound confession that calls us to confess the sin of racism within the church.  If approved, this will be the first confession from the global south to be included in the Book of Confessions and the first addition in thirty years.  The testimony in the committee was convicting, which included hearing from members of the Uniting Reformed Church who were involved in its composition—written in one sitting, one evening, as if inspired by the Holy Spirit. 

It was asked, why is Belhar needed since the Confession of 1967 already  speaks about racism?  C67 has just one paragraph about racism and refers to it as something occurring “out there” in society, as the civil rights movement swept through the county. Belhar turns the focus inward to the church, it holds up a mirror so that we can see our sin. Without confessing our sin, without acknowledging our racist selves—and, at some level we’re all racists, whatever our race may be—that broken, wounded of part ourselves will continue to wreck havoc upon the church—Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in American society—and upon the world.  I heard one white minister, who was raised in South Africa, under Apartheid, who now serves in the United States, describe himself as a “recovering racist.”  Every day he has to choose to reclaim the full humanity of his neighbor, whoever he or she might be, and in doing so, one day at a time, reclaims his own humanity.  Belhar is a gift to the church and to the world.

We also celebrated the formation of 248 new worshiping communities in the PC (USA), not conventional churches, but new communities gathering for worship and service, fellowship and mission. Our goal is to organize 1001 worshipping communities.  To celebrate, the commissioners tossed 248 large, red balloons to one another around the the plenary hall, all to the sound of Pharrell Williams’ pop song, “Because I’m Happy.”  There’s much to be happy about.

Some folks will leave the Church; others will come because of what we did this week. One commissioner shared this comment from a Detroit lunch waitress who said: “I heard you all are making some really good decisions.  I'll be visiting one of your churches.”

I agree with Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister and author, who wrote, reflecting on the actions of the GA, “God is love and we live by the rule of love.  …We have watched lives destroyed because people thought that they had to choose between God or claiming their sexual identity. In all of this, we want to listen to the words of Jesus who commands us to ‘love one another.’ ‘They will know we are Christians by our love.’ God is love. When we make decisions of this magnitude,” she says, “love is our rule.”

For this reason, I am hopeful.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) might be small and getting smaller—and after this week’s Assembly we’ll be smaller still.  Our voice and influence as a denomination might not be as strong and large as it once was when the Protestant Establishment was, in many ways, the American Establishment.  But we still have something valuable to offer the world.

I was struck by this observation from Niraj Wakiroo, staff writer for the Detroit Free Press who covers religion and immigration.  Observing the Assembly all week, writing from “outside” and looking in at us (as a Muslim, I believe), Wakiroo said, “Watching the Presbyterian Assembly you can see why Protestant-rooted civilizations have been so successful. You see the Protestant sense of time, order, democratic openness, rule of law, and an unending drive to improve themselves and the world.”[4] He gets us.

The Protestant spirit of reform continues. Our disestablishment from the halls of civil power just might mean the emancipation of the Church of Jesus Christ to really be the Church. Freed from other encumbrances allows us to preach the Gospel, to take some risks for the sake of Christ, make some people uncomfortable with the truth, yet always speaking that truth in love to the powers that be, powers that hinder the advancement of God’s Kingdom vision of justice and peace and love and grace and hope.  This is why we can abound with hope. 

God is doing something new with and through the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the world is taking note.  We are all witnesses.  We’re blessed to be alive to see it. 

The days ahead will be difficult for us.  But whoever said following Jesus was supposed to be easy?  Of course it’s difficult—damn difficult.  That’s what makes the Christian life so interesting and meaningful and wonderful. 

So, “May the God of hope fill you—and me, the Presbyterian Church (USA), all of us, the church catholic—with all joy and peace in believing, so that you—so that we—may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit,” (Romans 15:13).  Amen.

For further reading:

A Jewish response to the GA’s actions:
On the Presbyterian Conversation on Divestment 

[1]Cited in Bradley J. Longfield, Presbyterians and American Culture: A History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 78. 
[2]On Sunday, June 22, on Meet the Press, Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the Presbyterian decision as “disgraceful” and “unchristian.”
[3] For further information see this FAQ on divestment.
[4] Niraj Wakiroo posting on Twitter, @nwakiroo, June 19, 2014.

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