This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's the Stupid Economy.

Amos 7:7-15

            Amos is the first of the great “writing prophets.”  He lived about 750 years before Jesus, and he worked in the northern kingdom of Israel, even though he was from the town of Tekoa, in the southern Kingdom of Judah.  He did not recognize this political division of God’s people as being particularly significant.
            He was probably fairly well-off himself, an educated landowner.  But, as he says, the Lord took him, and instructed him to prophesy to God’s people. 
            It was a time of prosperity for both kingdoms; both were enjoying stable royal dynasties.  But things were going especially well for Israel.  The area had relative peace, and they found themselves situated on a busy trade-route.  Many Israelites were getting rich.
            I still remember my father preaching on the opening chapters of Amos, and the way he talked about the prophet building up a head of steam, first sharply criticizing the nations around Israel for their injustices and atrocities, getting the crowd whipped into a patriotic frenzy.  But then, Amos turns his attention to Israel, and my dad imagined the crowd then getting quiet and even angry.
            “For thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel and for four I will not revoke punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way,” proclaims Amos.  And then the rest of this book is largely a wall-to-wall hammering of the sins of his own people, the Israelites, and their king, Jeroboam II. 
            Almost all of Amos’ criticism has to do with economic justice.  The Israelites, in their prosperity, had allowed a huge gap to develop between the rich and the poor.  The rich, in their expanding greed, oppressed the poor mercilessly, and imagined that their religious observances and their Israelite blood would exempt them from God’s judgment.
            To which Amos repeatedly says, “I don’t think so!”  He predicts comprehensive consequences in terms of natural disasters like droughts and plagues.  And this will culminate in the nation being destroyed and carried off into exile.  God is the Lord of nature and history, and God is not mocked with impunity. 
            Offering perfect sacrifices and singing songs to God will not cut it.  Amos insists that the way to honor God is to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  In taking this approach Amos anticipates and prepares the way and sets the tone for the subsequent prophets.  They will take up the same themes and message as Amos.

            For any other nation, there was no problem.  Rich people were thriving, and rich people controlled the religion and the government.  If the poor people who actually did all the work were suffering that was not a concern.  The GDP was soaring.  Amos attests that the wealthy class lived in stone mansions, one for summer and another for winter; they slept on beds of ivory, they feasted on lamb and veal, they drank good wine and anointed themselves with fine oils.  They also rigged the economy for their own benefit, using false balances and adding floor sweepings to the wheat-flour they sold.  (Israel had no FDA.) 
            None of this would have disturbed any of the surrounding nations.  Their gods approved of and provided for this kind of economic growth.  No prophets of Baal ever emerge to decry economic unfairness or injustice.
            But the God of Israel is different.  And this difference is based on the fact that their ancestors were slaves who had escaped from cruel bondage in Egypt.  And their God gave them a law which was supposed to keep them from falling into the same kinds of injustice they experienced in Egypt.  This God of escaped slaves does care about the poor and the exploited and the needy.  This God identifies with the people who do all the work in society.  This is the God who instructs them not to steal, not to oppress aliens, to observe a weekly day of rest from profit-making work even for animals, and not to let wealth pile up among just a few.  This God does not want this nation to be anything like Egypt.  Israel was supposed to be anti-Egypt in almost every way.
            So when God blesses the nation with prosperity and peace, God’s intention is that this be something from which everyone benefits.  God wants the wealth given to Israel to be distributed evenly so there would not be anyone who was poor, or crushed by debt, or working hard to make someone else richer.
            Unfortunately, this did not happen in Israel.  When times were good, they forgot the covenant their God made with them.  They reduced it to meaningless religious rituals.  And they allowed a system to develop that was no different from that of any other nation.  The rich got richer, and more corrupt, while everyone else got poorer, and sank further into debt, while working harder all the time.
            God hates it when this happens.  God looks at this and it looks to God like another Egypt.  And what Egypt’s injustice and oppression brought down upon itself was a devastating series of plagues, natural disasters that broke their system and forced the Pharaoh to let God’s people go.

            Only now it is God’s people themselves who are doing this!  These are the people who are supposed to know better because they have God’s law.  These are not clueless Gentiles mindlessly following the impulses of their own egos.  These are not people governed by the dog-eat-dog chaos of natural selection or survival of the fittest.  These are the people of God!  And when they choose to act like any other nation it constitutes an explicit rejection of God and God’s way.  They have no excuse.  As far as Amos is concerned, they have consciously chosen death.
            At one point Amos has a series of visions.  One of these is of a plumb-line, a string with a weight tied at the bottom.  Contractors still use plumb-lines to make sure that walls are straight and built absolutely perpendicular to the ground.  A plumb-line works by the inexorable law of gravity.  It will point to the center of the Earth.
            A wall that is not straight, or is not at 90 degrees to the ground, will fall.  Gravity always wins.
            God’s law, says Amos, is like gravity.  It is absolute and irrevocable.  A crooked wall may stand for a while, but it will fall eventually.  A nation may thrive on injustice and inequality for a while too.  Oppressing the poor can make a few people very rich for a while.  The nation will look wealthy and prosperous, the system will appear to be working, especially if you only measure like the average wealth or income.  I mean, if 1% of the population make $5m a year and 99% make about $5k a year, the average is going to look pretty good.
            But God is not fooled any more than gravity is fooled.  God is not fooled any more than the laws of physics can be denied and ignored.  God says repeatedly that idolatry leads to injustice, which leads to disaster.  God’s people had fallen into idolatry.  They were worshiping these other gods in the “high places,” the State-approved sanctuaries that were supposed to replace going to Jerusalem.  The gods of prosperity encouraged the regime of injustice and inequality, and Amos knows that catastrophe always results from this.  So he predicts that these sanctuaries will be laid waste, the monarchy will be destroyed by war, and the people will go off into exile.
            The wall that tries to defy gravity will collapse; the nation that tries to defy God’s laws will suffer the same fate.  And by the way, these are not issues of personal or sexual morality that God and Amos care about.  Amos mentions in passing something about cultic prostitution in 2:7-8.  But it is the crooked and unjust economics that gets God riled up. 

            This message upsets the establishment.  The State-approved priest, Amaziah, starts arguing with Amos.  First, he informs on Amos to the king.  Then he tries to send Amos back to the southern kingdom, where he came from.  And he bans Amos from preaching at the royal sanctuary at Bethel.
            Amos replies that he is just an ordinary guy who was taken by the Lord and compelled to come north and preach.  He is not a member of one of the official, State-supported guilds of prophets.  He is not, in other words, one of the king’s religious lackeys.  His job is not to tell with wealthy and powerful what they want to hear.
            Amos recognizes a higher authority.  The Lord God is higher than the king.  Amaziah says Amos should not prophecy at Bethel because “it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”  It probably had the royal flag up by the altar.
            This argument means nothing to Amos.  He is not an agent of the king or the State.  He is only an agent of God.  Thus Amos witnesses to a collision between the interests of God and the agenda of the State, the government, the establishment, the authorized priesthood, and the ruling, wealthy class.
            Who are we agents of?  Is our ministry like that of Amos in the sense that it is about God’s will according to God’s Word?  Are we annoying agitators for justice and righteousness?  Are we standing up for those who have been left behind, who do the work, who bear the burdens, who suffer the consequences of others’ actions?  Are we with the homeless and the undocumented, the sick and the infirm, the unemployed and the indebted?
            Hey, I think you folks do pretty well!  One of the reasons I came to this church was that I saw how well you care for each other, and that you were willing to be of real assistance even to strangers.  Our “Be-the-Church” experience a few weeks ago was another example of this.  We should keep this up and even build on what we are doing!
            At the same time, Amos does not come to the northern kingdom and start a food pantry to help poor people (as good and important as food pantries are).  He addresses the king.  He gets in the face of the rich and powerful who are running a corrupt and destructive system.  He makes himself so unpopular that there might have been a price on his head.  He attacks the root cause of poverty and debt, which is first of all idolatry: obeying something other than God, going along with the promises of prosperity these other gods tempted people with. 
            And secondly Amos attacks the policies that make for catastrophic inequalities in the distribution of the wealth that God intends for everyone.  Amos addresses the problem at its source: bad, selfish, greedy, exploitative leadership.
            In our gospel reading we see John the Baptizer doing the same thing… and suffering gruesome consequences.  John is a prophet who follows the traditional prophetic role, established by Amos and his predecessor, Elijah.  He addresses the leader, the king.  And he as no effect at all.  Herod cuts off his head and presents it to his step-daughter as a gift.  What can a prophet say to such a decadent, degenerate leader and his laughing court?  Nothing.
            Jesus has already established a different approach.  He
comes pretty much ignoring the leaders and the men with the power and money.  Instead, he invites everyone into a new kind of community.  He calls it the Kingdom of God.  It will not be dependent on kings and rich people.  It will be a gathering of the common people, starting with the poor and the outcast, and those whom society declared to be sinners.  He starts with the most unlikely people: prostitutes and tax collectors.  One group is hated by the right because of their immorality; the other group is hated by the left because of their injustices.  These are the new leaders – anti-leaders, perhaps – whom Jesus will call to lead people into this new community.
            Jesus does not go to the king, and only at the end of his ministry does he get to the royal sanctuary, the Temple.  He goes and collects, well, a motley gathering of losers from all walks of life.  And he establishes small, alternative groups of sharing and healing, acceptance and prayer.  The poor didn’t have much but if they shared what they did have, and if they did not adopt the values of their predatory economic leaders, they would draw closer to God’s intention from way back in Exodus when God gave Moses the law.
            This is what King Herod hears about.  And it scares him.  Nothing terrifies a corrupt ruler more than the idea of the people not participating in their own subjugation anymore. 
            Maybe that’s what Jesus intends his church to be: gatherings of neighbors and friends for mutual support, prayer, encouragement, acceptance, forgiveness, and healing.  Maybe he sends us out to spread the good news of God’s Kingdom by welcoming others into this community.  Maybe Jesus comes to rebuild human society in God’s image, person by person, household by household, church by church.
            We see where injustice gets us.  We see where leaders want to take us.  But we also see Jesus Christ, and where his teachings lead us.  In him we are bound together; in him we are one, and all of our divisions are dissolved.  In him we may embody the vision that Amos cherished, and that God gave to Moses, of a holy people, gathering in peace, and sent out in love to all the world, starting right here.             

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Don't Rebel, Stand Up!

Ezekiel 2:1-5.

            On July 31, 593 BC, a man named Ezekiel had a spectacular mystical vision as he was sitting in meditation on the banks of the Chebar River, in the city of Babylon.  Ezekiel was one of the Jews forcibly relocated to Babylon five years earlier, in the first deportation from the land of Judah.  He was far from home, living in the land of his people’s conquerors, in a very unsettled political and military situation.
            You may read his description of the vision in chapter 1 of his book.  The centerpiece of it is “four living creatures” who are bound together by spinning and whirling wheels within wheels, surrounded by fire and lightning, under a shining crystal dome. 
            After this vision dissipates, and Ezekiel has fallen on his face in awe and terror, he hears a voice speaking to him.  And this is where we pick up the reading for today.
            The first thing the voice says is that he should stand up on his feet.  God does not like to see us groveling on the ground.  It’s as if God wants to respect us and lift us up.  God wants us as conversation partners, not as unworthy worms who don’t have the guts to stand before God.  It is the kings of this world who demand that kind of subservience, who enjoy humiliating people, and who demand that people show their complete, abject obeisance.  But God’s preference is to speak with us face-to-face.
            If God stands us on our feet before God, certainly God does not want us groveling in the dirt before each other.  Anyone who can stand in God’s holy presence, will fall prostrate to no human being.  What God wants for us relative to God’s self, God surely demands for us in relationship to each other.
            By lifting Ezekiel up, God is saying to the whole Jewish people in exile: “Stand up.  Rise up!  Stop moping around bent over before these people.  They are no more than murderous barbarians.  I will deal with them in good time.  In the meantime, don’t bow down to them.  You are my people in spite of everything.  There will be no self-humiliation.  Get up!”
            And the Holy Spirit enters Ezekiel and straightens him up so he can face God. 
            God then tells him that he is being sent as a prophet to the people of Israel, a nation of rebels who have rebelled against God.  So it sounds like groveling and bowing down before God is not Israel’s problem.  It sounds like they stand up to God too much.  Indeed, they are continually rebelling against God.  That’s their problem.  That’s why they have drawn down upon themselves this horrible set of consequences, this comprehensive catastrophe, the near total destruction of their nation, which has been going on for year after agonizing year.

            The problem is that the Jews have been standing up to the Babylonians.  That’s why the Babylonians keep tightening the screws by ordering more deportations, increasing the intensity of the siege of Jerusalem, and so on.  The Jews keep rebelling.  And in rebelling against their conquerors, they are rebelling against God.  Because the prophets have been telling them for a generation that this disaster is the consequence of their disobedience of God and they should not try to escape or mitigate it.
            Now, if a country ever conquered us, or even if we were just attacked, and someone came along and said we should just endure it because we got ourselves into this mess, I feel confident in saying that that prophet would not get much of a hearing.  Imagine the reaction if someone said we deserved what happened on 9/11!  We would probably feel quite justified in hating him or her as a traitor, someone who is undermining our resistance and bringing aid and comfort to the enemy attackers.  We would much rather conspire with others to throw off the yoke and get free, even by violence.
            The Babylonians were not the good guys.  They were a brutal and oppressive regime bent on genocide as a matter of policy.  How could the Jews do anything else but resist and fight against an enemy who was arguably even worse than even Pharaoh of old?  And yet the God who liberated them from Pharaoh is telling them to stay enslaved to Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian Emperor.  Every time they rebel against Babylon, they suffer a defeat more horrible than the last.  God is clearly not with them in this fight.
            So the Jewish people might at this point claim to be confused.  How can the God of justice and freedom leave them in bondage and defeat?  How can that God favor a regime as unjust and brutal as that of Nebuchadnezzar?  Why is God not favoring them, the weak, the poor, the broken, the defeated, and the needy?  What crimes could the Jews have possibly committed that warranted this wall-to-wall atrocity?
            This is a question a lot of us have, when we see gross injustice and violence loose in the world.  Where is God?  Why doesn’t God intervene?  Psalm 73 talks about this.  Why does God seem to favor the wicked?  Why do good things happen to bad people?  People who mock God and get rich on the backs of hard working people… they appear to thrive.  God seems to reward greed, gluttony, lust, hatred, and violence.  They reject the life of faith, and adopt an existence of conspicuous consumption of ill-gotten gain.
            Where is the God of justice?!  Many Jews simply stopped believing in the God of their ancestors, transferring their allegiance to the gods that gave the Babylonians victories and wealth.

            So the Jews are supposed to rise up… but not rebel.  And they were having a lot of trouble making this distinction.  Aren’t rising up and rebelling the same thing? 
            When the children of Israel were liberated by God from Pharaoh’s bondage in Egypt, God gave them a law.  The purpose of the law was to ensure that this new nation would not be like other nations.  Most of all, they would not be like Egypt.  In other words the new nation would not be characterized by slavery, oppression, idolatry, and injustice.  The new nation would not have spiritual or political hierarchies.  There would be no economic or social classes, because everyone would be equal before God.  The new nation would walk lightly on the earth and live simply.  They would worship and serve one God, the God of liberation.  Then God promised to bless them and make them safe and prosperous.
            Unfortunately, this did not hold.  The new nation was under constant pressure from enemies, and they eventually instituted a monarchy, mainly for purposes of national security.  And they got seduced by the other regional gods of economic growth, like Baal.  God grudgingly tolerated the monarchy and tried to work with it, but most of the kings were unsatisfactory.  They flirted (at least) with idolatry, and they allowed social and economic inequities to develop.  In other words, they rejected God and God’s law, and intentionally became more and more like every other nation in the area.  They failed to uphold their part of the deal, the covenant with God.  And when you decide to become a nation like any other, you become liable to the consequences of being a nation like any other.
            Jesus says that if we live by the sword we will die by the sword.  If we live by violence, injustice, inequality, greed, and idolatry, we will die by these evils.  If you live like every other nation, you will suffer the fate of every other nation.  The people of God had forfeited their “exceptionalism.”  They relinquished their right to be treated differently by God because they didn’t treat others, especially the weak and the poor, differently than any other nation.  As the prophets repeatedly remind us, they allowed the rich to get richer and everyone else to get poorer.
            Hence, when a succession of powerful empires rose in the east, the people of God had no moral strength to stand against them.  And they had to suffer the consequences: vassalage, defeat, destruction, and finally exile.

            They rebelled against God and God’s law.  But God gives the law so the people can stand up in the face of regimes of chronic injustice and violence.  The law prescribes a way of living together in peace and justice, equality and fairness.  It is by living according to God’s law that we stand up and live as free human beings before God. 
            But how does that help us in the face of such horrible violence as we see in empires like the Babylonians or their predecessors, the Assyrians?  Ezekiel, like Jesus, recognizes that fighting against these forces with violence is futile and self-destructive.  Not only does it bring down terrible retribution by a stronger power, but it caves in to hatred, anger, violence, and fear, and is thus wildly unfaithful to God.  We become like them and we suffer the fate of all violent entities.
            Ezekiel’s whole ministry is about urging people not to resist militarily against the Babylonians.  Mostly he was to alert people to the horrific consequences of continued disobedience.  He was supposed to deliver this warning no matter what.  If he didn’t, if he chickened out and kept this unpopular warning to himself, the consequences would be on his own head.  But if he proclaimed God’s Word of warning and people didn’t respond it would be on them.
            The people didn’t listen.  They resisted by violence.  They rebelled against God’s will.  And they suffered the consequences. 
            In order to understand what God wants from us here we have to expand our imaginations beyond what we consider normal.  Like Ezekiel, Jesus understands that his mission will not necessarily be popular with his own people.  He announces resistance to evil, but this resistance is to take a dramatically different form.  He wants people to stand up, but he advocates no violence.  Instead he sends his disciples out with the opposite approach of radical simplicity and dependence.  His is an under-the-radar revolution, in which people’s lives are changed and relationships altered, people repent, which is to say, change their way of thinking about the world and acting in the world.
            In other words, Jesus advocates non-violent resistance to the forces of injustice that rule our world.  He wants a resistance that builds a new community among the common people, especially the poor, powerless, diseased, and possessed.    Instead of advocating collecting weapons and going into the hills to mount a terrorist insurgency, which is bound to fail, Jesus says start at the bottom and change the hearts and relationships and behavior of the people.

            And we know that what happened was that the people in exile organized themselves quietly to live a different kind of life according to God’s law, even in a foreign land.  They learned how to live with integrity in exile.  They learned how to maintain their identity and independence even while they were a tiny minority in a hostile regime.  They discovered how to make their faith portable, not tied to a specific piece of real estate or building.              
            Over 500 years later, the people have been back in their home country.  They’re not in exile anymore.  But they are again subject to oppressive, violent, exploitative, corrupt rulers.  They are again sunk in an order in contradiction to God’s law, given at Sinai.  They are again subject to a new Pharaoh.  Their leaders have again been seduced by violence.  Their society features the same old immense gap between rich and poor which the commandments were given to keep the people free from.
            And Jesus comes along and says that God has given up on working with the leaders.  God has given up on kings and emperors and governors and priests.  God has moved away from speaking to the heads of government or business or even religion.  Because it is they who historically have led God’s people into rebellion.  It’s the leaders who develop the hubris, and who work with each other to consolidate their own power and wealth, and who make deals with other regimes, and even drive the people into war.  And throughout history, every time the church has pledged its allegiance to a leader or an establishment class it has eventually suffered for it. 
            Now we are reminded that we have only one leader, one King, one priest, who is Jesus, the Son of God.  And he directs us to find our power in what the world calls weakness, and our authority in service, and our wealth in giving and even poverty.  And it is when we start living in this way, as exemplified by the strict instructions Jesus gives his disciples when he sends them out, that the world will see and know that we are prophets who have been send into the world with a message of peace.
            At the General Assembly last week Brian McLaren talked about the emerging nature of authority in the church.  Instead of authority being something wielded and hoarded by a centralized leadership, he suggested that now authority is measured by how much you give away, how much you empower and authorize others, how much authority you lose.  The more you lose the more you have. 
            This is exactly what Jesus is talking about and what he demonstrates and exemplifies in his own life of self-emptying.  When he sends us out into the world, as with the disciples he sends on that mission, it is also for our own self-emptying.  It is as if we are finally able to stand up when we lose the weight of the baggage holding us down.  Those missionaries, who carried almost nothing with them, were radically free.
            Maybe we too are called to a ministry in his name that is unburdened by our own preconceptions, agendas, and self-importance.  Maybe we are called to live with people, depend on them, heal them, gather them into communities of peace, and so free them from the oppression that feeds on our alienation and separation.  Maybe we are called to exercise authority by giving away the authority the Lord has given us, so that he may find us worthy to receive even more.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

GA220 + Day Seven (Friday)

 (Yes, Friday, not Thursday, was Day Seven.)      

            I decry this virulent epidemic of bow-ties.  Stop the madness, people!

            The morning, after the usual housekeeping details, was invested almost entirely in finishing the Middle East report.  This began with an attempt to reconsider the action taken the night before.
            I had been up until 1:30 with a group brainstorming about possible strategies to get divestment back before the Assembly.  Knowing what I know about Assemblies and about parliamentary procedure, I knew this to be a long-shot no matter what.  In the end we settled on four possible strategies, and let the friendly commissioners decide what to do.  Unfortunately, they chose to use all four in succession.  One of the approaches might possibly have worked.  But the full-court-press tactic merely tried the patience of the Assembly, and each initiative failed by margins wider than the last.
            After finally deciding that the Israeli policies in the occupied territories were not technically “Apartheid,” the Assembly finally voted to ask the Board of Pensions to find a way to relieve the consciences of those who did not want their pension dues going to support the non-Apartheid atrocities committed against Palestinians.  The Board tried to weasel out of this and were peremptorily told to do it anyway.
            Then we all got up and sang some upbeat hymns.  So it’s throw your neighbor under the bulldozer and sing about Jesus.
            The “Confession of 1967” talks about Jesus Christ as a “Palestinian Jew.”  Now we see these two essential elements of the Lord’s identity divided and cast as enemies.  But under the non-Apartheid regime in Israel-Palestine even Palestinian Jews are second or third- class citizens.  Non-Jewish Palestinians are treated like non-humans.  Jesus is a Palestinian Jew.  He identifies with the suffering of each of these groups.  In this case it Jesus’ Palestinian successors who now suffer most systematically and profoundly.  It is they who identify most with the Israelites in Egypt and the Jews in Babylon, and even with the Lord himself on the cross.  I don’t see how we can sing in this Assembly songs about Jesus while at the same time in effect giving him the finger by our participation in the oppression of people with whom he identifies.  Jesus is a Palestinian, for God’s sake.  I mean literally.
            On to same-sex marriage….

            The Assembly began by getting hung up on whether a motion may contradict the Constitution.  If this were true it would be impossible to amend the Constitution, since proposed changes would be ruled summarily out of order.  This reasoning was used yesterday by the chair when someone moved something in contradiction to the Trust Clause, one of the fattest of our sacred cows.  This concept was turned against the chair by some who said that since the Constitution only defines marriage as between a man and a woman, any attempt to change that standard is out of order.  This effort failed, but it left the august figures on the platform looking inconsistent and hypocritical.  Then they spent the rest of the first hour wrangling over assorted parliamentary nonsense.
            After three hours of debate the Assembly basically voted to do nothing.  Given the level of courage we have seen so far, and the allergy towards change, will this Assembly will no doubt pride itself in there being little evidence that this meeting ever happened?  Perhaps.
            Later in the evening attempts were made to roll back the changes from last year and reinsert sex language in the ordination standards.  These efforts also failed, showing that this was an Assembly committed to making no changes at all, progressive or conservative.  The theme here is inertia.
            However, it appears that the young people present, both Young Adult and Theological Student Advisory Delegates, were generally willing to make strong choices moving the church forward.  Since these are the folks who will inherit the denomination, we have reason to hope in the future.
            Another thing that gives me hope is this initiative to establish 1001 new worshiping communities.  Now, we’ve proclaimed initiatives before that went nowhere.  And this will not happen unless we loosen up a lot of our governance and even more of our way of thinking.  As I said earlier, we are designed to accomplish as little as possible.  But if we get out of our own, and the Holy Spirit’s way, this is something that could be done.  Note that the initiative is about “worshiping communities,” not necessarily “churches.”  A worshiping community can be more informal and (gasp!) spontaneous.  But we’re going to have to lose our mentality about turf, and not allow existing churches to obstruct new things by which they feel threatened.  And there’s a lot of fear out there.
            One of the texts that was preached on repeatedly at the Assembly, is Mark 2:1-12, the story of the paralytic who is healed when four of his neighbors lower him down through the roof of the house where Jesus is teaching.  The preaching had us identifying with the friends, or even the healed man.  It appears that a paralytic is a fitting image for this non-ambulatory Assembly, which was unable to stand up and get itself anywhere.  We find ourselves at that point where we are looking up at Jesus in hope.  We rely on the faith of others, forebears, advocates, courageous saints, prophets, people with enough gumption and commitment to demolish the very roof of the Lord’s house, and convey us into Jesus’ presence.  When we are healed it will be because of the faith of these others that Jesus sees and imputes to a church unable to walk on its own.
            Some of those others were there in the Assembly.  Some were testifying before committees about their work.  Some were present only in memory and spirit.  Some were watching at home.  And very many were barely aware of this big, expensive meeting in Pittsburgh.  But those are the blessed folks who carry the church into the saving presence of the Lord.
            I will not say the theme of the Assembly – “walk, run, soar” (from Isaiah 40:31) was ironic.  But it was a hope we still retain. 
            During the Assembly, in order to keep in some semblance of physical shape in all this sitting and eating (and enjoying some remarkably good beer), I took the stairs whenever I could.  Including up to the 9th floor of our hotel.  The first time I did this I am ashamed to say I had to stop on the 4th floor and gasp for breath.  Maybe that’s where we are as a denomination.  Out of shape, trying to climb higher, but needing to take a breather.  Maybe the Spirit was subtly at work strengthening hearts and limbs unaccustomed to strain.  (Not to disregard the people we manage to leave in suffering and despair while we’re taking our breather….)
            By Friday I could make the ascent without stopping.  (Not without gasping, however.)  And maybe after this Assembly, we will be more equipped to walk, run, and hopefully even soar, in God’s mission.    

Friday, July 6, 2012

GA220 + Day Seven (Thursday)

            This was a long day, capped by a remarkable act of complacent cowardice.  The Assembly decided, by two votes, to continue to benefit from and support American corporations actively participating in atrocities against Palestinians.  They provided themselves scant cover by concocting a na├»ve and idiotic initiative about encouraging investment in the West Bank.  How we are supposed to invest in businesses under constant threat from a military occupation was not made clear… mainly because nobody gave a crap.  The man who set the tone for this discussion was the one who stood up earlier, during a discussion of economic policies, and affirmed the goodness of greed as an essential element of economic growth.  The idea of a deadly sin being advocated on the floor of a General Assembly says it all.  Basically the Assembly bowed down to Baal.  And then congratulated themselves on their own civility.
            They did approve a long list of social issues policy statements.  Many of these were faithful and even courageous.  However, they also cost nobody anything beyond the energy it will take to bury them deep in the Minutes and forget about them.  While such pompous pronunciamentos say the right things about justice, poverty, peace, housing, children, and so forth, they rarely trickle down to have any effect on what goes on in local churches and presbyteries, let alone the lives of individual Presbyterians and their families.  These statements, some of which actually call for the Stated Clerk to communicate with government leaders all over the world, may have had some impact back in the day when the Presbyterian Church had some political clout.  Those days are long gone.  Now we just look ridiculous. 
            At the same time, a document like “World of Hurt, Word of Life” is extremely valuable as an educational tool, and I really hope churches and presbyteries use it.  We need to see these policies shape our own lives together and forget about influencing governments.  It’s about us, and how we respond to the gospel in our social-political-economic life.
            The Assembly tends to lose its nerve when anything actually starts to have to do with real money, or threaten to be controversial.  Thus they approved an initiative to enter into discussions with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians about a possible merger of our pension plans.  While the Assembly had enough self-respect to quickly dispatch some other schemes to not only make it easier for churches to leave the denomination, but to give those who leave, or are prodding others to leave, a continued voice in our denomination, they managed to cave on this one.  If our pension plan would benefit from a greater number of participants, the denominations to talk to would be those which which we are in some kind of communion: the UCC, the RCA, the ELCA, the KPCA, and the Moravians.  Why we would partner with people who wish us harm is beyond me.
            But we’re partnering with people who make armored bulldozers for use against innocent civilians.  So our partnership standards are pretty low anyway.
            When the Assembly votes, they have this screen reminding them of the options (Yes, No, Abstain).  In one corner of this screen there is an image of a rotating Earth with gold lines of communication spreading across it.  But in the image the planet is rotating backwards, from west to east.  It is a fitting commentary on this Assembly so far that they want to go backwards too.  Conflict avoidance is the order of the day.  No one wants to have anything to answer for when they go home.
            A few weeks ago the Outlook magazine interviewed a few Executive Presbyters.  They advised the Assembly not to do anything controversial either.  They seem to think we’re still dealing with the fallout from the big changes of the last Assembly.  They want things to quiet down.  They are afraid our presbyteries are in trouble due to too much controversy and too many churches applying to leave because of it.
            Well, I’ll grant that Executive Presbyters may be in trouble, as presbyteries find that kind of bureaucracy less affordable.  But presbyteries and congregations are only in trouble to the degree that they stop trusting in Jesus Christ.  And Jesus calls us to a transformed life witnessing to his justice and peace.   

            One of the ways we’re trying to turn the clock back is this policy about internet access.  The principle is that the commissioners should not be influenced by outside forces when they are in deliberation.  In the old days this was easy.  They simply didn’t let non-commissioners into the enclosure.  Then came portable phones.  Then came the internet.  So they will allow phones into the enclosure, but they have jammed the wireless so all we can receive that way is the G.A. intranet. 
            However, those who have fancy-enough phones can now get the internet from their cell-phone signal.  Which means that this policy is obsolete.  They are in effect privileging people with advanced phones over those who only have computers.  Phone users have access to the internet while computer users don’t.  So either this policy has to go, or they have to start confiscating phones from commissioners when they go into the enclosure.
            Hey!  It’s the 21st century!  The future is open-source.  Which means we’re going to have to trust people to have access to everything available and sort it out for themselves.  The coming generations are internet savvy.  They can discern the manipulative crap from information that they find helpful.  Let them do it.  This blocking of the signal is paternalistic; it treats commissioners like children (or jurors) who can only be allowed access to limited resources.