Monday, June 16, 2014

Mercy, Mercy Me

The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is gathering this week in Detroit, and I'm sporadically following the show via Facebook and Twitter feeds. I'm a hit-and-miss GA participant, and this time around it's a miss. I'm not particularly broken up about that, but following the social media conversation does remind me of the one thing I genuinely miss when I'm a virtual attendee: the people.
Sure, it's the oldest, corniest thing in the book:
Here's the church,
here's the steeple,
open the doors,
and see all the people.
But it really is a matter of the people. The community of faith, however widely or narrowly drawn, is nothing more, but nothing less, than a web of human relationships.
We are bound to one another by a shared commitment to one another, or we are rent asunder by the fraying of that commitment.
The two most prominent business items before this assembly are the ones most bound to fray that commitment. That should come as no surprise. Items that demand outsized attention are invariable controversial and divisive. As has been the case at most assemblies for the past generation, the hot-button issues are sex and Israel.
Curiously enough, the revised common lectionary this week shares those same fascinations with sex and Israel, as we read through the strange saga of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar ... and Isaac and Ishmael.
I don't have any particular wisdom on any of this. If I did, I would have felt called to be in Detroit. What I take from Genesis is the conviction that God wants us to live in community, and that God will work to redeem the worst that we do to one another. Trusting that second truth, my hope for the assembly is that they manage to live into that first one.
Of course, as those foundational myths of Israel underscore again and again, not only do we have an almost limitless capacity for creatively screwing up human relationships, we almost inevitably do so at the expense of the powerless and those "othered" by human society and tribal bonds. And again I don't think this is any great insight, but it does strike me that both marriage equality concerns and Israel-Palestine ones rest on the question of how the powerful treat the powerless, and how society -- and the church -- choose to define "us" and "them."
The extent to which we respond to these pressing concerns well or poorly, creatively or fearfully, may well be the measure by which we find any people left when we open the doors. I trust that people of good faith from every perspective on the questions of the day would agree that something of profound and immeasurable worth would be lost if no one was left.
That is not a cry for unity at the expense of making bold choices. Far from it. I will celebrate if this assembly embraces marriage equality, and I will think it a bold and prophetic action if we choose divestment. At the same time, I want us to embrace rather than flee from the notion that we are all bound together, and that what binds us is, itself, important enough to cling to.
I wonder what we would make of the foundational myths if Isaac and Ishmael had wound up bound together on that altar while Abraham searched desperately for another way to follow God's call.

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