In a few days the Seventy-second General Convention of the Episcopal Church will convene. This will be the last General Convention of this century even as it stands perched on the beginning of the new millennium.
For our consideration, I have selected a passage from the sixth Chapter of the Book of Amos: "Woe to those who put far away the evil day and cause the seat of violence to draw near." These words were spoken way back in 750 B.C. in Israel when Jeroboam II, was still king in that land. The society of that day was over-ripe and almost rotten to the core. The leaders were as content as they were self-satisfied with their own conditions. Business was good. The people were building winter and summer houses of ivory and were furnishing them with silk-upholstered couches. They had leisure to carouse and time to cultivate music, yet their religion was only surface deep.
Amos, the prophet, could see that this religion was so superficial and he alone saw the approaching doom which comes to any society that is overly-concerned with itself. And he told them so in no uncertain terms: "Woe unto those who put far away the evil day and cause the seat of violence to draw near."
Amos could see that those leaders who put off, disdainfully, a day of reckoning that may be near at hand, actually bring near the possibility of violence and foster that oppression which eventually spells ruin and destruction.
We see parallels of this today. We live in one of the most sophisticated nations in the world -- the only one that can truly call itself a superpower. The stock market is at an all-time high; the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer; there are attempts being made to enter "civil religion" in every phase of life -- prayer in the public schools, prayer in the courtroom, prayer at athletic gatherings, all under the guise of promoting "family values." And while this is happening, some poor people and immigrants are being denied health services; some deserving mothers and infants, as well as veterans, are being denied governmental benefits; there is a great deal of discussion as to whether legal immigrants as well as undocumented people should be allowed to receive the most basic of health benefits.
The challenge facing the church today is whether we will become chaplain to the status quo spending all of our time discussing our structure and internal matters rather than dealing with the great issues which face us in the world. In the Report to the General Convention (sometimes called the Blue Book), the Standing Commission on Structure of the Church has the longest report in the book, followed by the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons with the second longest. In many of our dioceses discussions on structure and internal matters have dominated our concerns during the past triennium. It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who has reminded us that "Violence is the language of the unheard." The Episcopal Church must not be so concerned with or focused on cohesion that we forget social justice.
Our history tells us that justice without reconciliation is unattainable, but it also tells us that reconciliation without justice is unacceptable. We must focus once again on issues that affect people. After all, what is there to pray about in church if church is not the place where people ought to intercede for those who are sick, in need of health services, bereft or homeless, suffering or imprisoned, or in any need out in the world? "Woe to those who put far away the evil day and cause the seat of violence to draw near."
Let us hope that the person who will be selected as Presiding Bishop will be a person of vision; a person who will speak from that post with authority; a person with a voice that resonates with God's love and justice; a person who will speak to the issues of the day -- without giving the impression that he/she is speaking ex cathedra, but rather from the stirring of his/her own conscience, in full appreciation of the authority of the office, yet sensitive to the beliefs and feelings of those in the Church who do not concur with his/her judgment or who have reservations. As the very symbol of the Church's unity, an outspoken Primate will have to abound in sensitivity and charity if he/she is to remain faithful to that office with its conflicting demands. These times demand nothing less.
Let us hope that the bishops and deputies will spend as much time on the report from the Standing Commission on Health as they do on the report from the Standing Commission on Structure. The report of the Standing Commission on Health calls upon all of us to provide universal access to quality, cost-effective health care services for everyone. And it goes on further to state that quality health care should be defined to include programs in preventive medicine where wellness is the first priority.
Let us hope that the bishops and deputies will focus as much attention and energy on the report from the Standing Commission on Peace with Justice as it does on the Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat. The report on Peace with Justice invites all of us to deepen our understanding of matters that relate to international peace-with-justice issues, especially as they pertain to the Anglican Communion. This Commission calls upon us to think in global terms about the international debt and about those places which need our prayers and help such as Rwanda, Guatemala, and Jerusalem in the Middle East.
Let us pray that the bishops and deputies will take as seriously the report from the Standing Commission on Human Affairs report as it does the report from the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons. That Human Affairs report asks some very compelling questions beginning with questions from our Baptismal Covenant: "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" The report analyzes their impact on our lives in church and society until the reading of our wills, leaving no stone of resistance unturned. It tells us "The emergence of movements within the church to combat such social ills as sexism, racism, or homophobia do not constitute an invasion of the church by secular culture. Rather, they constitute efforts to reclaim the joyous, liberating heritage that was God's gift to us in Jesus Christ and follow our Lord's call to look critically within ourselves to see how our nature as sinners afflicts us even within our own faith community." The Commission report emphasize that "we cannot fulfill our evangelical mission as a church without taking on the challenge of being prophetic. We behave as the church when we reach out to serve others wherever and whoever they are, seek Christ in them beneath the grit and grime of their pain, and remove the sources of that pain."
The report paraphrases another question from our Baptismal Covenant: "Do we Episcopalians really welcome the stranger as well as we proclaim?" The report reminds us that "one of the more distressing trends in this country in the past five years has been an emerging xenophobia -- fear of the other, the stranger. We see this manifested in all sorts of ways in the world: the initiatives to cut illegal aliens from any semblance of humanitarian care, the suggestion that even legal immigrants should not have access to certain services, the feeling that immigrants are somehow taking the jobs that rightfully belong to citizens of these United States. Despite hopes of seeing a new world order emerge, the fear of the stranger persists in increasingly virulent and violent forms throughout the world....Has the Episcopal Church somehow also fallen into this trap? Are there some people whom, by the virtue of their 'otherness' we are not serving as well as we ought?"
The final section of the Human Affairs report offers vignettes that "encapsulate perfectly the need for the church not only to serve the poor, but to be advocates on their behalf." It deals with the nature of power, and the consequences of our actions.
Let us hope and pray that the deputies and bishops will devote their valued time and attention to the reports of the commissions dedicating so much of their time, knowledge and thought to the issues of the unheard, the needy, and the oppressed. As indeed it was our Lord Jesus Christ who said, "Inasmuch as you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me."
Let us pray that the General Convention's actions will help people understand that a ravaged environment imperils our economy; that unfairness in our budget and tax code undermines public trust; that voting rights anchor our democracy; that civil rights sustain our stability; that women's rights affirm equality; and that fundamental fairness and social security (Medicare/Medicaid) redeem our social contract.
In his new book Christian Households Thomas Breidenthal, distinguished Professor of Moral Theology at the General Theological Seminary, eloquently writes:
"Yet it is fatally easy for those in the church to turn away from the kingdom by way of a road that looks like the very kingdom itself -- warmth for one another, concern for the community that has formed around a particular altar, a particular priest, a particular event of renewal. But if we slip over into celebrating the particular community we are part of, then we are moving down the slippery slope from self-satisfaction with the group we already are, however diverse, to being part of a group that has turned away from the vision of universal connection. In the name of connection the church must always be looking outward. Where there is ambivalence about connection, it is tempting to turn inward. But this inward-turning always comes at the cost of exclusion, and such exclusion always means that Jesus is also excluded."