New world a-comin'

Passage: Mark 6:14-29
Date: July 16, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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I suspect that today's lectionary reading from the gospel of Mark is not among our favorites. I doubt if any of us memorized it as a child, nor do we often read it to our children or grandchildren. It seems to interrupt the flow of the story, sort of inserted in the 6th chapter. In the episode before it, Jesus sends the twelve out in pairs to preach and to heal. The narrative immediately following today's reading seems to carry on from there, with the disciples returning from their ventures on Jesus' behalf. Slicing in between is today's graphic, even gruesome account. Listen. Listen for what the Spirit has to say to us, the church. (Read)

Good old John the baptizer. You know, if he had just stayed out there in the wilderness, knee deep in the muddy Jordan, telling everybody they needed to be baptized, he would have lived a lot longer. But no, for some reason, some holy reason, he had to criticize the provincial Roman governor, Herod. And for what? For breaking religious law clearly stated in the Levitical code: One does not get to steal one's brother's wife, even if one is the highest power in the land. No one is beyond God's law. And the law was not about illicit sex. It was about family and community and social stability and inheritance. Herod violated it. John told him in public that he had done it. Prison was his consequence, even though Herod sort of respected and feared this strange man of God. Then, by whim, perhaps well lubricated with the fruit of the vine, John lost his head. His public stand, speaking God's truth to power, cost him.

In 1963, a few blocks from where we were meeting as our denomination's General Assembly last month, four young Black girls were changing into their choir robes in the basement of their church one Sunday evening. In an instant, the building was firebombed, and all four died. Responding publically because of his faith in Jesus Christ, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a series of demonstrations in Birmingham. Arrested, he was jailed. Seven of the city's leading moderate Christian clergy and one Rabbi urged him not to do such things. Now was not the time, they said. King responded with his now famous "Letter from a Birmingham jail." In it, he talked about our "inescapable network of mutuality" as Christians. Our inescapable network of mutuality, that which propels us into public witness on behalf of others.

From John Calvin in 16th century Geneva to John Knox in Scotland to John Witherspoon in the American colonies, Christians with a Reformed/Presbyterian flavor have always struggled to witness to God's love and justice on behalf of others, even at a cost. Such witness divides us from each other, and risks public opposition. Our recent General Assembly was no exception.

There are four major ways that business comes before the Assembly: from General Assembly agencies; through overtures from any of our 173 Presbyteries around the country; from work assigned by previous assemblies; and from commissioner resolutions. That is, any elected commissioner can present an item of new business at the beginning of the Assembly. All business from any source must be considered by one of 15 committees. Every item of business is studied, changed, approved or disapproved by a committee, and then referred to the whole Assembly for particular action. Then the Assembly gets to do it all over again. All 750 or so commissioners and advisory delegates potentially can speak to any issue, offer amendments and substitutes, support and opposition. It is a fabulously, painfully open process that our church embraces, as we seek to discern the voice of God in our day.

The most controversial social justice issue before us concerned a commissioner resolution from the Assembly two years previous. A giant billboard reminded us of it as we came in from the airport: "Divestment is NOT the Path to Peace" it announced to all the world, especially to us. Obviously, some people opposed to what the 2004 Assembly had done had significant financial means. Westminster has had several classes and discussions about that Assembly's action. Briefly, in 2004, we reaffirmed that the denomination's investments are to be used to support values in keeping with our beliefs, and to oppose those not in such keeping. That is, as stewards of several billion dollars of investments, we must not make money from corporations whose work contradicts what we believe. That would deny our faith. Also, we are to use our investments as leverage to attempt to change how particular companies operate. For example, through share holder resolutions and conversations, we work with companies whose operations we deem environmentally destructive. If they do not change such practices, we will divest-sell the stock. In 2004, the General Assembly agreed to work with particular companies which it might see as contributing to the violence in Israel/Palestine, and if necessary, to study possibly divesting of them. The slant was toward companies which acted on Israel's behalf. Much of the motivation was frustration at our helplessness in contributing to peace in that region. Because of immense misunderstanding and miscalculation, the last two years have been filled with broken Jewish-Presbyterian relationships, public accusations of anti-Semitism, attacks about imbalanced policies, and the like. On the other hand, our action has prompted a number of other denominations to consider how their investments promote or do not promote peace in the Middle East. It has also forced deeper, more honest conversations with various Jewish communities. This year, 26 Presbyteries sent overtures to the General Assembly, some encouraging, some discouraging, some seeking change. The Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues had its work cut out for it: lines of people wishing to speak, Jews, Christians, and otherwise; always a large gallery of observers; and intense press scrutiny. What emerged was a very carefully crafted and cautiously nuanced statement. It acknowledges that the 2004 Assembly's action had caused hurt and misunderstanding among some Presbyterians and our Jewish neighbors. It accepts responsibility for flaws in the previous process, and asks for a new season of understanding and dialogue. But let us be clear: it does not rescind the previous Assembly's action on possible divestment. Instead, it broadens the focus to corporate engagement to ensure that the church's financial investments do not support violence of any kind in the region. It also instructs that the church identify affirmative investment opportunities there. It reaffirms Israel's and the Palestinians' rights to secure countries. It declares that where Israel's barrier/wall violates Palestinian land that was not part of Israel prior to the 1967 war, that wall/barrier should be dismantled and relocated . There is more in that report, and it has been misinterpreted by some from the day it was printed. How we live our public faith does matter.

Acting on an overture from the Presbytery of the Trinity, the Assembly approved potential divestment of stock in companies "profiting from the sale of armaments, helicopters, tanks, and other war materiel to the government of Sudan until those companies either suspend their operations in Sudan or a just and lasting peace exists for all people of Sudan... and that the General Assembly Council do so with all due speed." Puting our money where our theology is, speaking what we know of God's truth in places of great power. Risky, divisive, in many ways, including the likelihood of being misunderstood. Friends, the pilgrimage of active public faith as we understand it always carries risk, internal and external. If it does not, we are probably unfaithful. By the way: Many of us have investments. I wonder how they reflect what we say we believe, or do we hold them only because they are good investments for our well-being?

Because we believe that our nation should be held to the highest standards of human decency and international law, we Presbyterians voted to petition Congress and the Attorney General. We asked them to investigate and prosecute any official or officer who bears direct or command responsibility for having ordered or participated in violations of law with respect to prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere. One of our Presbyterian Military chaplains affirmed this action as helpful to the men and women with whom he serves. Contrary to our president's perspective, we Presbyterians hold our beloved nation accountable to the highest standards, and we say no to prisoner torture and abuse. This is an issue of faith for us, not expediency, even in time of war.

We approved a "Reformed Understanding of Usury in the 21st Century," especially as it relates to payroll advances and credit education. That speaks to a current Oregon issue. This fall, we will receive a detailed study and guide on "Just Globalization: Justice, Ownership, and Accountability." That is, how do we as Christians understand and respond to economic globalization? The subject seems much too vast for me. Yet, we benefit from it, while much of the world which does not. Are there ways to theologize about it, to grow in Christ, and in living respsonibly? If we do not do faith in the economic arena, we betray our heritage, and it seems to me, we deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

One afternoon, the ecumenical representative from the Presbyterian Church in South Korea told of a peacemaking venture. During the last year, our denomination attempted to bring representatives of the North Korean church to meet with representatives of the south. It was a attempt in international peacemaking. "Your State Department stopped the North Korean representatives in Peking," he said, "It refused to issue travel visas."

After midnight the last night, we heard the report of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the campaign for fair food.. Practically unknown in the northwest, several years ago, our denomination joined impoverished farm workers in Florida in a boycott of Taco Bell restaurants. Lucas Benitez, director of the Coalition, had waited all evening. He had come to thank us, the Presbyterian Church. During the boycott, our Stated Clerk and the Director of the General Assembly, our two highest officials, had frequently traveled to Florida to meet with farm workers and with officials of Yum! Brands, the parent company to Taco Bell. What the workers wanted, among other things, was a one cent/lb increase as they picked tomatoes. They had not had a raise in 20 years! Often they were abused, threatened, and nearly held against their wills in order to get the tomatoes picked. That night, we were being thanked for our denomination's powerful solidarity and willingness to walk with these workers toward a strong resolution of their relationship with Taco Bell. Benitez exclaimed: "The church is absolutely necessary because of the power and influence it has with corporations. Executives of these corporations are often members of your congregations." (Think about the conflict in those churches.) He concluded, "We anticipate that commitment and vision will continue to grow and begin to expand this precedent to the entire fast-food industry, so that all workers can be respected as human beings. We will not rest, and we will not stop until justice comes to all of us." By the time he finished speaking, and embraced our Stated Clerk, we were on our feet, cheering and applauding with tears in our eyes. By the way, when our youth group stayed in Florida earlier this summer, unknown to them, they shared housing with some of these very workers. Risky, internally and externally, being faithful with Presbyterian flavor.

Friends, we Christians with a Presbyterian flavor belong to an inescapable network of mutuality. Faith in Jesus Christ is always personal. Yet, we believe it can never ever be private. There is a new world a-comin'. Far more than my salvation or yours, it is the very reign of God. We pray for it every week: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth..." Always, that new world pushes against the current one. Always, ours is a risky, controversial way of life. We can never be about business as usual. Look at our model. Look at Jesus. We live in very difficult and wonderful times. "At our best, we are imperfect persons who make imperfect decisions in an imperfect world-and we are still loved and blessed by God," said Samuel Anderson, president emeritus of Pittsburgh Seminary. Believe it. Believe it and risk it, for the sake of the world and to the glory of the One we profess to follow, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.