Thursday, July 12, 2012

The View from Pittsburgh. July 2012.

If you visit Pittsburgh, among of the first things you notice are the beautiful bridges that cross the three rivers shape the city. In a city of bridges, then, it was sad to watch bridges burned in actions of the assembly and the words of some of its participants, but at almost the same time it was a joy to watch new bridges being constructed through both faithful action and dynamic worship.
In terms of actions I turn to the newly formed “Presbytery of the Twitterfeed” – which met at #ga220 – for the best summation I saw: “#ga220 let’s discuss how to discuss this for four hours, do parliamentary craycray, discuss for two hours, then vote to do nothing.” And that’s pretty much the “report from GA.”
Seldom have so many confabbed for so long to get so little accomplished.
On the closely watched items of particular concern to More Light Presbyterians, the results were a mixed bag. On same-gender marriage the assembly, against the recommendation of its committee on marriage and civil unions, defeated an overture that would have changed the wording in the worship directory section on Christian marriage that defines marriage as between “a man and a woman” to “two people.” (That is the measure that National Capital Presbytery declined to endorse earlier this year.) The assembly also declined also to offer an authoritative interpretation of our Constitution that would have offered protection from prosecution in church judicial courts to pastors who preside at same-gender weddings in civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage is legal.
Rather than take any firm action, GA has asked the whole church to study the matter for the next two years.
On the other hot-button issues before the assembly they voted down the assembly committee on Middle East concern’s most controversial recommendation on divestment of holdings in three companies – Hewlit-Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola – that continue to do business with the Israeli defense forces in the occupied territories. GA did endorse a boycott of Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories’ products and dates from Hadiklaim, both companies produce their products in the occupied territories in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
I was disappointed but not particularly surprised by these votes. After all, this assembly installed my friend and neighbor, the Rev. Tara Spuhler-McCabe as vice moderator on Sunday morning, after the moderator election last Saturday evening, and then sat back and watched as a conservative drumbeat mounted against Tara for presiding at a same-gender wedding in the District this spring. When the noise reached an ugly level, Tara decided, on Wednesday, that to continue as vice moderator was too much of a distraction to the assembly so she resigned.
In that atmosphere, there was simply no way that deep discerning was going to occur. In truth, sometimes the assembly struggled to maintain simple civil discourse.
In the midst of the anger and hurt and exhaustion and disappointment that follow on such decisions, it’s important – essential, even – to note the good, but often overlooked work of the assembly; and it is fundamental to who we are to lift up the mighty power of God evident in worship at the assembly and, sometimes, in the committees themselves.
In terms of business that reminded me of God’s powerful presence: the 220th General Assembly endorsed the interim report on discerning God’s call to the Presbyterian Church to consider the question of aligning ourselves with the historic peace churches with respect to questions of violence. That effort, which lifts up a truly profound possibility of transformation in the church, began with action in my session.
The assembly also turned back, by margins of roughly 3 to 1, efforts to roll back the ordination standards to the days of G-6.0106b. GA also endorsed the new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. The revisions removes the phrase “homosexual perversion” that had been inserted through the use of the New English Bible rendering of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, a translation that added the phrase not found in the original Greek.
The assembly also spoke a prophetic word to the church and the culture around several financial and economic issues. We have been instructed, as congregations, as individuals, and, I’d argue, as church-related organizations, to look carefully at lending practices of the financial institutions with whom we do business. If they are part of the problem of predatory lending and usurious interest then we are part of the problem, too.
Scripture throughout warns against financial practices that victimize the poor and the economically marginalized precisely because such practices erect insurmountable barriers to justice and thus to community, and, fundamentally, such barriers to community are also always barriers to communion with God.
The gospel passage used in each worship of the assembly was Mark 2:1-12, the story of the paralytic whose friends cut a hole through a roof to get him close enough to Jesus to be healed.
Pittsburgh’s Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community drama team reconstructed the story set in a contemporary Presbyterian church whose elder-in-charge-of-greeting cares more about the appropriate appearance of the church and its members than about sharing the gospel. Appropriate, in her eyes, clearly meant white, middle-class, straight and clean cut. After offending several visitors who didn’t quite measure up to her standards, the new minister shows up. The new minister is an African-American woman – the horror! The new minister invites the elder to accompany her down to the city where, she says, she’s met Jesus living under a bridge. The elder-in-charge-of-greeting is dumbstruck, resists until she falls down exhausted, screaming “don’t take me to Jesus; I have to go to church!”
That enactment of the gospel led to the preaching of elder Tony De La Rosa, a partnered gay man who opened his sermon welcoming his mother and his mother-in-law. Tony, who is interim executive of the Presbytery of New York City, really could have sat down at that moment.
Instead, he preached a powerful, poignant and prophetic word to the assembly calling upon the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to dig through the ceiling and break down the walls to help the outcast, the broken, the sin-sick get to Jesus.
Years ago I brushed the dust of Pittsburgh off my feet because the folks in positions of power in the church there didn’t care to hear what I felt called to say. It was a joy to return barely a decade later to witness a married gay man preaching the word of God to the General Assembly of the church.
We have still a long way to go, but the arches on the bridges of Pittsburgh bend gracefully across three rivers to carry the rich and the poor, the struggling and the lost, the wondering and the redeemed across to the other side. Those graceful bending arcs of steel reminded me last week that the moral arc of the universe does, indeed, bend toward justice. When we do the work of love it bends the whole world round, and it will carry us on to the other side.