Just and Right Waters

Amos 5:14-15; 21-24
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Amos was a shepherd, called by God, to the difficult task of challenging the Israelites with their abuses when they were at the height of military strength and economic affluence. Did anyone listen to the prophets who warned America of material excess, military over-expansion, and a financial industry out of control in the last twenty years? No, but to this kind of confrontational task, rural Amos was called. And at the heart of his message is the call away from superficial expressions of faith in God to a communal and personal desire to seek good and not evil, to live rightly and justly. Amos challenges his people, “Take away from me the noise of your songs…but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos says those who love God truly must also love others truly.

The next image on the screen is the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL. Notice that the prophet Amos got no credit, only MLK for making the prophet’s words ring true in a time of segregation and injustice. Richard wrote a strong editorial in the early 1990’s, hoping get a Biblical reference to Amos added, but to no avail. Nevertheless, this artful, fountain of ever-flowing water streaming down over the names of those who were killed for resisting injustice is a testimony to the truth of these words, and their power to transform lives. No matter how you feel about the effectiveness of President Obama’s administration, I expect you can smile with me to think how far we have come from these tumultuous days of change in the 1960’s.

I invite you to hear anew these words written 2600 years ago.
Amos 5:14 -15, 21-24
Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts,
will be with you, just as you have said. 15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Many of you are aware that I have just returned from service as a commissioner to the national meeting of Presbyterians in the PC(USA). 712 elders and ministers in equal number, came together in Minneapolis to work, pray and together discern the will of God for our denomination for the next two years. The General Assembly is like the US House of Representatives and the 173 presbyteries are like the US Senate. Most major items passed by the Assembly must also be approved by the presbyteries before anything is changed. If you have read the information I emailed about the Assembly, you know that with much prayer and debate, we dealt with the issue of homosexuality, which touches all our lives in families and neighbors, schools and churches. We have been addressing overtures pro and con on this matter for thirty years.

I do not intend Peace Presbyterian to become a congregation driven by a particular social or denominational issue. No, the center of our life must and always be Jesus Christ. But we need to be informed about the struggles of the denomination, and we need to be able to discuss them responsibly and respectfully. They are relevant to how we live our lives as Christians. So I want to share with you today my ruminations about the challenge to discern what is right and just in the eyes of God, through the witness of Scripture and our Reformed confessions of faith as we listen to the voice of the Spirit in the here and now and as we reflect on the history of the Church in previous struggles.

I want to acknowledge that I believe Christians on both sides want to do what right and just in the eyes of God. They want to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures and the Confessions of the Church. But there is one major difference between the two camps – those who would welcome same-gendered couples into every part of church life, including ordained leadership as elders, deacons, and ministers – and those who would welcome them into membership in the church while challenging them to repent of same-sex coupling. This major difference is the way scripture is interpreted.

The difference between these two groups is one is looking at the trees of scripture and the other the forest of scripture. One group is placing more authority on the literal interpretation of specific texts, while the other is placing more authority in the whole of scripture’s witness, interpreting the specifics in light of the broad themes of covenantal love, mercy, and justice.

This divide is very similar, in my opinion, to one in the mid 1800’s, though the issues are not exactly the same. A then widely respected seminary professor of Columbia Theological Seminary, wrote to his wife as he was serving as a commissioner to the 1845 General Assembly. He said, “I have no doubts that the Assembly, by a very large majority, will declare slavery not to be sinful, will assert that it is sanctioned by the word of God, that it is purely a civil relation with which the Church, as such, has no right to interfere, and that abolitionism is essentially wicked, disorganizing, and ruinous.” (James Thornwell) About twenty years later the Presbyterian Church split into two denominations – those who thought slavery was wrong based on broad strokes of Biblical justice and righteousness and those who defended it, based on the specific scriptural texts which call slaves to obey their masters.

Between 1930 and 1960, the church lurched through several more theological battles related to social change. Women were first ordained as elders in the northern branch of the church in the 30’s, the same year that the General Assembly declared that the highest goal for young women should be motherhood and that colleges should focus on homemaking. Contraceptives were suspect. In 1956, our friend Marg Towner became the first ordained female minister in the Presbyterian Church. The southern Presbyterian church, still existing separately after the divide over slavery, was about at least a decade behind the north in these actions. Again, the issue was the interpretation of scripture. If one focused on particular verses like the ones in the letters written by or attributed to Paul, which call women to keep silent in church and be submissive to their husbands, then one had a harder time seeing the broad strokes of the recognition and empowerment Jesus (and even Paul) gave to women, despite the male-dominated culture of their time. If one is surrounded by a culture which expects men to be in the public sphere and women to be in the private sphere of the home, then it is hard to fully grasp that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In this same time period, in the middle of the 20th century, the equality of the races was heating up again, and the issue of divorce and remarriage was being contested. I’ve already mention civil rights and Martin Luther King so let’s talk a minute about divorce. In the Gospels, Jesus takes a harsh stand against divorce in the Gospel accounts, excusing it (if you read literally) only for a man when his wife has been unfaithful.

Fifty years ago a male pastor who divorced was expected to step down from his position in the church for a season. But over the last half a century, we have taken broad strokes of forgiveness regarding the difficulties of holding together a marriage which is unhealthy and destructive to one or both parties or harmful to the children of such a union. We can now say that divorce is just and right in certain circumstances. We see marriage as a partnership of two equally valuable persons. That was not the case for thousands of years before.

So where does all this leave us in our current debate about committed, monogamous, same-gendered couples? (Mind you, we’re not talking about any kind of sexual promiscuity, which we can all agree is wrong.) Some folks whom I respect think that we are losing all moral and Biblical ground by considering that homosexuality expressed in a covenantal relationship could be good and not evil.

Others of us think that to deny such persons, who love the Lord Jesus Christ as we do, who were born with a homosexual orientation, who want to make a commitment or have made a commitment to love one person in the same way I love Richard, is not right. To deny them the opportunity to serve as leaders in the church – elders, deacons, ministers, is an injustice. To deny their partners and children the pension and medical benefits, when dues have been paid, is wrong and unfair. You may not agree with me, and that is okay. We can have a respectful conversation about it, and we all represent the Presbyterian Church (USA), a church which for the last decade has been trying to find the just and right waters.

There is no denying that we are living smack dab in the middle of this debate, one which will not go away in our church or our culture. There are now five states in the union which allow same-gendered couples to get married or to commit themselves to a civil union. You and I have Christian friends on both sides of this issue, and we have close friends to whom this matter is very personal.

No matter where you stand on ordination, I hope that you agree that at Peace and in the PC(USA), Christian unity is right and just, and honest, respectful debate is the only way to preserve such unity for the sake of the Church at large and our witness to Jesus Christ.

We are not the only ones in this struggle for the right and the just. Among the major Christian traditions in this country, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church are among those on our left. The Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Church are among those on our right.

Nobody wants the church to split. History has already seen the Presbyterian Church split over social issues and Biblical interpretation too many times. The PCA and EPC are the products of such division in the last fifty years. Thanks be to God, the major camps of the 1860’s, Presbyterians north and south, were pieced back together in 1983. Nobody wants to ignore the Word and the Spirit of the Lord. Nobody wants to be mean or un-welcoming toward any of God’s children – whether they see homosexual relationships as sin or not. All of us want what is right and just. We want to seek good and not evil.

And let me be clear. Teens and adults, alike, we in the Presbyterian Church, are not saying that it is just and right to have sex with someone because it feels good to express your love. Fullest expressions of intimacy without commitment, without a promise to love forever is neither just nor right. Our God is one who loves us with a covenantal love. God keeps promises, loves completely, and forgives always. We are called as God’s people to make covenantal commitments, which provide a holy foundation and place of security for the fullest expression of sexual love. We don’t handle all our relationships perfectly, but we never stop trying to live more fully in and by the covenantal love of God through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. As stated in A Declaration of Faith, “We confess the value of love and faithfulness and the disaster of lust and faithlessness in all our relationships as women and men.” As it says in the Confession of 1967, “Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of our alienation from God, neighbor, and self.”

The prophet Amos calls us to seek what is good, not just what feels good. Seek the Lord and live. Be faithful. Be generous. Be celibate (just say “no”) when you are not in a position to commit to a covenant of love. Never take advantage of someone because you can. Love people, care for them, choose the right paths of relationship because it pleases God and leads to life, the joyous life of being connected to the world and humanity as God intends.

Pray with me please. God, you have called us in this time and place to wade in the water of conflict over human sexuality. You’re troubling these waters and it is not easy to make the right choices. Help us to know and to do what is just and what is right. Give us courage to celebrate faithfulness and to denounce infidelity in all our relationships as human beings. Help us to submit ourselves to your Lordship in every aspect of life, including those areas about which Jesus spoke very often – matters of our generosity toward others. Where we fail, forgive us and call us again to new life, to purity of purpose in serving you. Where the church is divided, where we are feeling confused or bewildered sometimes by all the changes in our world, give us clear guidance, that we might truly hate evil and love good, that we might work on ourselves, before we try to work out the sins of others, that we might bring to you worship that is pleasing in your sight, not superficial worship, filled with hypocrisy. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer, that justice may roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.