Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 21, 2014; Non-Lectionary Sermon

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Romans 15:13
If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you may have seen some headlines about our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, held this past week in Detroit. The Assembly took two controversial actions the news media has been interested in: it decided to divest — or sell stock — in three large corporations, as a protest against the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza; and, it opened the way to same-sex marriage ceremonies, performed by ministers who feel led by their conscience to do so.

I was present at the General Assembly, as I usually am. As stated clerk of Monmouth Presbytery, I’m expected to go: not as a voting commissioner, but as an observer and a helper for our presbytery’s representatives. That puts me in an ideal position to observe the Assembly: the things that are said, the motions made, the votes taken.

Jim McGuire, an elder from our church here in Point Pleasant, was one of Monmouth Presbytery’s four elected commissioners. The others were Doug Chase, husband to our own Linda Chase and Pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church; Barbara Hicks, Pastor of the Hope Presbyterian Church in Lakewood; and Beverly Marsh, and elder from Trinity Presbyterian in East Brunswick. A youth advisory delegate completed the delegation: Peter Stelljes from Yardville.

There are dozens of things I could tell you about the Assembly — it’s a truly remarkable gathering of Christian leaders from all over the country and the world — but today I’m going to focus on just two decisions: the controversial ones I’ve already mentioned, about divestment from three American companies supporting Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians; and the decision to allow same-sex marriage. I don’t want to make this just a report on how Jim and I spent the last week. At the end, I want to share with you some things I observed in Detroit that make me truly hopeful about the future of the church.

First, a word or two about the General Assembly, in case you’re not up on all the details. It’s the highest “council,” or governing body in our Presbyterian Church. It’s the ecclesiastical counterpart of the Federal government: Congress and Supreme Court rolled into one. Over six hundred commissioners are elected to the General Assembly, by more than 170 presbyteries from all around the United States, including Puerto Rico. The Assembly is half teaching elders, or ministers, and half ruling elders. There are also some “advisory delegates” — people with voice but no vote in the larger meeting, representing young people under age 26, seminary students, missionaries, and invited representatives of a few other Christian churches from around the world.

Most commissioners and advisory delegates have never been to a General Assembly before. With the Assembly meeting every other year, and with just 600 voting members to represent 1.8 million Presbyterians, participating in a General Assembly is a rare opportunity, and a great honor for those elected.

Think of the challenge of making the Assembly happen: 600+ voting members, most meeting one another for the first time, thrown together in committees of 60 or 70 people for two days, then in the whole group for three more. Hundreds of items of business must be discussed and voted on — everything from passing budgets and electing officeholders to hot-button issues like divestment and same-sex marriage. The General Assembly is, quite literally, one of the largest legislative bodies in the world: its agenda is massive, and everyone there is an amateur!

I think there’s only one possible explanation for how such a large and unwieldy group can accomplish so much good work: it can only be the Holy Spirit!

Now, on to those two controversial issues.

The first is the divestment vote, in support of Palestinian rights.

This is an enormously complex subject that would take more than the few minutes I have today, to even begin to explore. Yet, there are just a few things I’d like you to know, as you hear stories in the news media about this decision.

Some are already trying to depict the vote as anti-Israel; it’s not. The action the General Assembly took affirms in very strong terms Israel’s right to exist, and that of the Palestinian state as well — the “two-state solution that both sides have long agreed to seek.

Some will try to tell you we Presbyterians are “divesting from Israel”; we’re not. The vote is simply to sell 12 million dollars worth of shares from three large American companies: Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions. Caterpillar sells military bulldozers to Israel that the Israelis consistently use to destroy Palestinian homes and olive groves. The other two companies sell advanced electronic equipment to Israeli security forces, that they use to enforce the the refugee camps monitor every aspect of Palestinian lives in the occupied territories.

Our church has been working with these three companies for more than ten years, trying to get them to agree to put peace before profits in this one particular — and very small — part of their business. The vote to divest of these shares is no precipitous decision. It’s the culmination of more than ten years of Presbyterian witness for peace in the region.

That’s the Palestinian divestment issue. The other is same-sex marriage.

This decision, too, is the product of years — even decades — of study, prayer and difficult debate. The biblical and theological reasons behind this action are complex, but suffice it to say there’s been a growing movement, among people of faith who care deeply about the scriptures, to revise the way Christians have historically viewed same-sex relationships.

This corresponds to a massive — and very rapid — change in the society around us. All of you are well aware of it. Young people in particular, in very large numbers, are saying “What’s the big deal?” in response to the question of whether or not weddings between two men or two women — already recognized by the State — can take place in the church. Many of them have come to view the church as a place of oppression and unfairness, and are staying away to explore other avenues of spirituality.

What the Assembly did was not to force anyone to change their biblical interpretation on this complex question. (This aspect of the decision can’t be repeated often enough.) It simply allows those Presbyterian ministers whose conscience — informed by the Bible — directs them to do so, to say “yes” to gay or lesbian couples who ask them to preside at their ceremony, without fear of being brought up on disciplinary charges. Under this decision, no minister will be forced to accept such invitations; and no session will be forced to approve such ceremonies to take place in church buildings.

A proposed amendment to the Book of Order — which must be endorsed by a majority of presbyteries in order to take effect — changes the definition of Christian marriage as being “between a man and a woman” to being “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” Note that this still affirms the traditional definition of heterosexual marriage, while allowing space for compassionate ministry with people who have long understood themselves to have been created by God just a little different.

As with the Palestinian divestment issue, I could speak on this for a very long time, laying out the biblical and theological justification for it, but I can’t just now. Not in this limited time.

As with the divestment issue, you may find yourself standing for or against the General Assembly’s division. That’s OK. One of the great things about our Presbyterian tradition is that there’s room for diversity of opinion on a great many important issues.

What I’d really like to hold up for you today is the theme of this 221st General Assembly: “Abound in Hope.” It’s a line from the verse of scripture printed at the top of your worship order, one of the most familiar benedictions from scripture. It’s Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

In the lobby of the convention center where the General Assembly met is a larger-than-life statue of one of the Detroit’s favorite sons, the late boxer Joe Louis. There he stands, head to one side regarding his adversary’s next move out of the corner of his eye, boxing gloves on his hands, ready to parry the next blow.

I wondered, when I first saw that statue, whether it was prophetic of what this Assembly would be like. Knowing what emotion-laden, divisive issues were on the agenda, would the next week be a parliamentary slugfest, each side pounding on each other — in a measured Presbyerian way — until the church split in two? Or, would it be a more peaceful, loving process, a time of reasoned debate and mutual understanding, as liberals and conservatives agreed to disagree?

I’m happy to tell you that peace and understanding won out in Detroit. The boxing gloves may have been on briefly, but they did not stay on. While a few congregations may yet petition to leave the denomination, particularly over the marriage issue, I doubt the numbers of those who decide to do so will turn out to be that great.

The reason is that both these controversial decisions offer something for everyone, liberal and conservative alike. This Assembly modeled how Christians of varying viewpoints can get along, even as they disagree with one another.

In other words, the people of this Assembly abounded in hope, just as our scripture passage says. They saw beyond the stormy issues of the moment, to the much larger peace — God’s peace — that surrounds us all.

That famous benediction begins with hope: but it’s not our hope. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” The hope we have comes not from us. It’s not our own creation. It’s God’s hope, that we receive as a gift.

The second part of the verse strikes a similar theme: “…so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Again, it’s not you and I who are responsible for that abounding, that overflow, of hope. We receive it by the power of God, the Holy Spirit.

A sermon I heard at one of the General Assembly worship services had a marvelous image of how Christian hope operates.

The speaker was one of our ecumenical guests, a professor from the Presbyterian theological seminary in Cairo, Egypt. Her name is Anne Zaki, and she’s a powerful preacher.

Professor Zaki told a story that came out of the Armenian community in Turkey, in 1915. Students of middle eastern history know that year to be one of shocking genocide, carried out by the Turks against the Armenian minority living within the borders of their country. More than a million Armenians died before the ethnic cleansing was over. Not until the horrors of World War 2 — the genocides carried out by Hitler and Stalin, in which many millions more died — would the death toll suffered by the Armenians be exceeded.

The story she told is of an Armenian Christian who lived through that era and survived. Reflecting back on those days of terror, he told how he went to bed each night committing his soul to God, because he didn’t know if that would be the night when the Turks would come for him, to shoot him and leave his body in a mass grave. When he awoke each morning, safe for another day, he lay in bed for a while to reflect on his circumstances.

As he lay there, he imagined there were two monsters standing at his bedside. At the head was the monster of despair, at his feet the monster of hope. Somehow, he knew not to feed the monster of despair, no matter how much it cried out in hunger. If he did, it would only grow stronger and lead him into the dark days of the recent past. He sought, instead, to feed the monster of hope. He knew that, if he did, it would lead him, sooner or later, into a bright future.

For this Christian, in a time of terrible fear and struggle, this strange, waking dream was prophetic. He did manage to feed the monster of hope, ignoring the monster of despair.

So it is for you and me, in whatever days of struggle and suffering may come our way, in this life. Always, in our lives, there are those two monsters. Always, we have a choice to make. We can choose to be people of despair, or people of hope.

Clearly, the Apostle Paul wishes us to be people of hope: for this great benediction of his both begins and ends on that note. It begins with “the God of hope,” and ends with us “abounding in hope.”

In Detroit, I saw a General Assembly abounding in hope. It was a courageous hope, that led those commissioners to take bold stands for the sake of justice. They could do it, I’m sure, because they knew the God of hope was with them — and is always with you and me, as well, if we trust in Jesus Christ to be our comforter and our guide.

Let us pray:
Lord, we confess that we are not always people of hope.
There have been times, when faced with unexpected trials and struggles,
when we have fed the monster of despair.
Teach us, in unforgettable ways,
that we can trust your promises,
in the words of the hymn we are about to sing:

“I am hope for all who are hopeless
I am eyes for all who long to see
In the shadows of the night,
I will be your light
Come and rest in Me.”

In the name of the Lord Jesus who makes this promise,