The General Assembly, meeting in Portland last week, approved an overture that originated with Southminster’s session but was conceived and written by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Former moderator of the General Assembly, Rick Ufford- Chase had the idea and Aric Clark, my friend who preached at my installation wrote it with Rick and some others. Our session voted that it be sent to the presbytery and Cascades Presbytery sent it on to the General Assembly that finished meeting last week.
Our own June Carlson was the Overture Advocate. She spoke for it to the General Assembly Social Justice Committee and organized the other advocates in their presentation. It was approved by the committee unanimously and by the assembly by a voice vote as an item on the consent agenda.
But don’t let the unanimous acclamation fool you. This overture was not an obvious pass or formality like thanking a missionary for a lifetime of service or rubberstamping a bureaucratic matter. This is a statement that calls the church out in specific ways. I am going to read the text that was approved. My sermon this morning will be the rationale.
1. Recommit ourselves at the congregational level, the mid council level, and the national levels of our church to locate ourselves with the poor, to advocate with all of our voice for the poor, and to seek opportunities to take risks for and with the poor (in the soup kitchens and catholic worker houses, among the immigrants, with those working to end mass incarceration, and with those who seek to protect all of us, especially the poorest of the poor around the world, from the vagaries of climate change).
2. Call on our churches to commit to a year of Bible study focused on issues of social justice with particular attention to the matters of race proposed in Item 11-08 and the application of the Confession of Belhar to these concerns.
3. Call on our presbyteries and synods to examine their own practice, placing these commitments at the center of their concerns, and to streamline the way that issues of immediate significance can be forwarded to the General Assembly by adopting procedures so that overtures and proposals on peacemaking and social justice concerns from sessions and committees may be considered quickly.
4. Facilitate the processes by which these concerns can be brought before us as a national body by resisting new barriers to overture submissions such as additional concurrences, tighter deadlines, or new overture topic restrictions at any General Assembly.
5. Commit to focusing a significant block of the time allotted for future General Assemblies on creating opportunities in consultation with the Committees on Local Arrangements to engage all of the commissioners, delegates, and observers in acts of service to and with communities at risk.
6. Assure that there are voices of those who are most at risk from within our church and outside of it (including interfaith voices), who are invited to share with and challenge the assembly, both in the plenary and committee sessions.
7. Recommend that the Presbyterian Mission Agency, through its Compassion, Peace, and Justice ministries area, implement a coordinated strategy or “cycle of social engagement” that will assure that concerns around confronting racism, environmental concerns, standing against violence and militarism, and advocating for the dispossessed come before the assembly on a regular and consistent basis, consulting on mission strategies and overtures with affected and engaged presbyteries before each General Assembly on topics of the most immediate concern.
The reason for this overture is to remind the church that its charter is one of engagement in issues of social justice. We are not called to hide from this charter because social justice issues might be considered divisive or might upset some people or might make us uncomfortable because of our own complicity in unjust and unsustainable structures.
There is a difference of opinion in the church, which comes as no surprise. To put it far too simply but clearly: Is the purpose of the church to affirm, recite, and try to evangelize people into believing correct doctrines about Jesus? Or is the purpose of the church to show up where Jesus showed up?
Rick Ufford-Chase has written an exciting book that would be a good study book for us called Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in A Time of Empire. He talked with me about it on the radio program which will be broadcast soon. It is a book of essays from a number of people and his response to them.
To give you a sense of the scope, here are the chapter titles:
Confronting Empire at the Border.
Dismantling White Supremacy
Reimagining Ecological Theology
Learning Nonviolence in a Multifaith World
Resisting the Seduction of Silence
The Local Congregation as the Locus of Resistance
Theological Education as An Act of Subversion
Mission as a Move to the Margins
Institutional Church as an Expression of Solidarity
Dismantling the Corporate Church as Step Toward Liberation
Rick Ufford-Chase is an engaging and passionate speaker. He said to me in the interview that many people of all ages left the church or find it irrelevant because they perceive it to be too concerned with doctrines and beliefs and not caring about what is really going on in the world. He said what is important is where the church is “willing to show up.” That is the phrase he used, “willing to show up.”
Is the church willing to show up with the houseless? Is the church willing to show up on the border? Is the church willing to show up for our Muslim neighbors? Is the church willing to show up for the incarcerated?
I am going to devote my series of sermons this summer on issues of social justice, where the church is asked to “show up.” After each sermon we are going to have a church chat, beginning today, giving you the opportunity to engage in further conversation with me and others.
The sermons are going to be based on texts from our scriptural tradition. When people find themselves engaging in an aspect of justice, they often see their ancient texts with new eyes. That is the case whether these texts be the Torah, the Gospel, or the Qur’an. These texts tell about movements that began in oppression and injustice. It shouldn’t be surprising although it often is for me, that when we brush away the cobwebs of centuries of imperial interpretation, we find that these scriptures contain radical calls for showing up—radical calls for resistance and empowerment.
The overture approved by the General Assembly is called “On Choosing to Be a Church Committed to the Gospel of Matthew 25.”
What is Matthew 25?
Matthew 25 contains three parables of Jesus as framed by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the parable of final judgment. This chapter concludes the teaching section of the ministry of Jesus. Chapter 26 begins with the plot to kill Jesus and the story of his betrayal and ultimate crucifixion.
Matthew 25 then is the summit, the climax, the stuff he wants to get across. When I say he, I mean Matthew’s Jesus.
So what is the movement of these three parables?
First we have the bridesmaids with their lamps. From this story we get the wonderful choral piece that we sang as a hymn, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.”
Five are wise and five are foolish. The foolish didn’t bring extra oil. When they go to get it, they miss the party. There is an urgency about showing up. We have to be ready when the moment comes.
Henri Nouwen told this story in his book the Wounded Healer.
A Rabbi who came across the prophet Elijah and said to him:
“Tell me—when will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?” said the Rabbi.
“He’s sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah.
“But how will I know which one is he?”
The Prophet said, “He is sitting among the poor, covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and bind them up again, but he unbinds only one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”
That is one way to keep our lamps trimmed. What is another?
There are moments that come in our lives that require of us courage, character, and fierce love. These are moments in which we are summoned to decision and action. These are moments when we realize what is at stake. We decide if prepared, if our lamps are trimmed and burning, out of love and faith. If not prepared, we respond out of fear.
Laurence Leamer has written a new book, The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Brought Down the Klan. It is how Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center took the Klan to civil court for a murder and lynching of a man in Alabama in 1981. Dees showed that the United Klans of America, even as it didn’t commit the actual murder, nevertheless, ordered it done. It was the first time a hate group was found culpable for the actions of individuals it inspired.
In the research for this book, Leamer discovered new things about Alabama Governor George Wallace. Wallace created an atmosphere of hate that ultimately contributed to this lynching because he cynically used integration for his own purposes. Later in life Wallace said he would be going to hell because of his actions. Wallace knew that integration was going to happen. Yet, at his first inaugural address, he said these infamous lines to applause,
“Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever.”
He used fear and hate to further his own career even as he knew that integration was inevitable.
He could have made a different choice. At that moment of decision, he could have been the one to shepherd the people of Alabama to accept integration. He could have been like de Clerk of South Africa, and bring an end to a racist and unjust system. Because his lamp was not trimmed and ready, because it was not full of love and trust, he backpedaled into fear and hate because it would get him support from those who were filled with fear and hate.
My friend, Ray Bagnuolo, of That All May Freely Serve, an LGBTQ advocacy group in the Presbyterian Church, said the church had an opportunity to make a decision for justice at this General Assembly, and failed. It had the opportunity to speak truth and reconciliation for the harm that the church has done to the queer community over these past decades from our wrong theological views and the violence and hate that resulted because of those views.
We had the chance, Ray said, in the week that followed after the horrific mass slaughter in Orlando, in which a self-loathing person murdered gay people because they were gay…
we had the chance, said Ray, for the church to take a clear stand and to start a national conversation about the hateful rhetoric against the queer community, rhetoric that comes from the church’s damaging theology and faulty biblical interpretation.
Sadly, our lamps were not trimmed and burning. We did not possess the courage. We did not speak from truth or love. We did not recognize the moment. We acted out of fear. We were afraid of angering those who still affirm the rhetoric that calls the queer community sinners and sick. That rhetoric creates an atmosphere of violence. We had the chance to name it and to begin healing. We missed the moment. We missed the arrival of the bridegroom.
I preached on the second parable, the parable of the talents in my sermon about the whistleblower. The hero is the third slave who buries the talent and calls out the master for injustice. Whistleblowers pay a price. They also are the ones who can save us from ourselves. These are the ones who show up and speak an uncomfortable truth to the powers that be on behalf of those suffer.
The other two “successful” slaves in this parable make their money, although the parable doesn’t say it explicitly, but those who heard it would know…
they make their money by increasing debts and foreclosing on the peasants whose families had been farming their piece of land for generations. The whistleblower said, “I’m not playing.” I am not contributing to this injustice. “You reap where you do not sow,” he tells the master. I buried your dirty money. Take it back.
This is where the church needs to show up today. We need to blow the whistle on unjust and unsustainable practices. We need at the very least, not to profit ourselves from them. We live in a complex economic system and difficult to navigate geo-political realities. But we cannot let that be an excuse for inaction. Do the products we buy and the investments we make as individuals and as a church, contribute to human flourishing for now and the future? Do they contribute to peace? People of good faith may disagree, but we must be willing to show up and have that discussion.
This parable summons us to be critical of the very institutions that sustain us. That is not easy. It is hard. It requires risk. It requires courage to look at the larger picture.
I am not oblivious that this is the Fourth of July weekend. I like to think of myself as a patriot. But I am not a nationalist. 55 years ago, former military general, President Dwight Eisenhower warned us of the armaments industry.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
His prophecy has become true one hundred fold. We manufacture so many weapons we sell to all sides and then have enemies use our own weapons against us. If there aren’t enough enemies of our enemies to whom to sell weapons, we sell them to our police departments. If there are not enough police to buy all we can manufacture, we sell them on the street, even to those connected with terrorizing our own people. Every time there is a mass shooting, we don’t tighten restrictions on guns. The opposite happens. Gun sales increase.
We have military bases all over the planet and whenever people ask if this is right, the response is that we need the jobs, or we need to be secure, or we are not patriotic.
The church needs to show up and blow the whistle.
The final story in Matthew 25 is the parable of the judgment.
I like Matthew’s gospel, but not all of it. Matthew has unfortunately given us the legacy of a punitive god who sends people to outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth way too many times. Once is too many. It is a punitive violent god that must reflect the author’s need for revenge. The author wants to speak about the urgency of living with justice and with peace, of turning the other cheek, of loving the enemy, and the god Matthew describes doesn’t do any of that.
It is a puzzling thing. The ethics are majestic. The Sermon on the Mount is in Matthew. This final parable of showing up with the poor, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the stranger, and the sick is what it is all about. It is the charter for following Jesus.
The irony of this story is that it is on one hand about who makes it to heaven and who doesn’t, sheep vs. goats. Yet, neither even knows what they were supposed to do in the first place. The righteous didn’t do what they did for a reward or to avoid punishment. They just did it.
I wonder if Matthew is winking as he is writing this parable of Jesus. Spoofing the whole judgment thing. In any case, this passage is most certainly a charter for where the church is called to show up.
In liberation theology, this passage has inspired the phrase, “a preferential option for the poor.” The Jesus thing is about showing up like the messiah did in Henri Nouwen’s parable at the city gate among the wounded, as wounded, unbinding and binding one wound at a time so as always to be ready.
If we ever have a question about who we should be, what we should do, where we should show up, Matthew 25 is our charter. I am going to end with the words of Rick Ufford-Chase from his book Faithful Resistance:
“Christians, if we are to have any currency in the multi-religious landscape of the United States, must be clear that we will not back down from the gospel values of the 25th Chapter of Matthew. Like the five bridesmaids who tended their lamps, we are ready to step into the unknown. Like the third slave who refused to take advantage of his sisters and brothers for his own or his master’s gain, we withdraw our consent from the dominant culture. Like the sheep gathered at the right hand of the Son of Man, we stand with the poor, the dispossessed, the sick, the foreigner, and the incarcerated.” P. 211.