Sacrificial Offerings

OGHS - Haiti Response: Two years later
OGHS - Haiti Response: Two years later

We just reassigned our church officer duties in January. I went from chairing the Hospitality Committee to being a part of the Stewardship Committee. As part of my new responsibilities, I needed to delivery the inaugural “Word for Children” in our big build-up to “One Great Hour of Sharing”. This is an ecumenical offering – usually coordinated with Easter/Passover. Many different denominations (and even religions) participate in One Great Hour of Sharing to support shared goals of feeding the poor, responding to disasters and helping those in poverty dig their way out.

I was doing some background reading for my big delivery, when I was struck by the story of how the offering began. The tale is this: just after the conclusion of World War II, a group of church leaders got together to discuss the plight of European and Asian countries after the complete devastation of the war. On a Saturday night, they broadcast “One Great Hour” – a call to all the American listeners to make a “sacrificial offering” in support of those in Europe and Asia who had suffered in the war. The listeners were called on to go to their churches the next morning and give their offerings.

Reading this, I was completely caught up short. There so many things in this to give pause, to cause a rethinking. I imagined what it would be like to be one of those radio listeners. It was Saturday, March 26th 1949 – 10 pm eastern – when the broadcast came over the radio 1. An appeal went out for that sacrificial offering. I think of those men and women listening. They had just emerged from what must be the hardest 20 years in our nation’s history. These were people for whom the Great Depression was no distant memory, but as far away as the ’80s are to us. During those grim years, they had been homeless, or feared homelessness. They had taken in relatives. They gathered scrap metal for sale, made a pot roast last a week, and gone hungry. They had walked the soles through on their shoes and resewn old dresses over and over to try to make them last. They cut the buttons off shirts that had truly been worn through, used the rags, and reused the buttons on a new shirt. They had made great sacrifices.

Then, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, these same people had been pulled into the great incommunicable horror of war. They spent whatever money they had on war bonds. Sugar, silk, rubber and other commodities were rationed. Front lawns were converted to victory gardens. But this was the smallest part of the sacrifice. The greater part were the farewells to fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, cousins and friends. A generation of young men, knowing well how fatal war could be after the previous generation’s “War to end all wars” shipped out to Europe or Asia. In the best case, the sacrifice was of years of youth. In the worst cases, the ultimate sacrifice was given. And in the middle, men came back maimed and damaged, to live with their wounds for the rest of their lives.

So those radio listeners on March 26th were people who knew sacrifice, who had looked it in the face, who had watched tremendous sacrifices made by those who had not made it back to the living room for a Saturday night broadcast.
And then the civic and religious leaders had the courage – the gall – to ask these men and women who had already given so much to give a “sacrificial offering”… to benefit the very enemies whose armies had killed brother and son, husband and father. A people just emerging from want and scarcity were asked to dig deep for people they had every reason to resent.

And they did. As many as 75,000 churches participated. The sacrificial offering was made to help rebuild Europe and Asia. (An aside … we have not since had a war with Germany or Japan, and not just because we defeated them. They are our close allies and friends now because after we militarily defeated them, instead of “sowing the soil with salt” after we did in World War I, we helped them build a country worth living in.)

This is interesting thinking in our current long-running economic difficulties. How many times have we heard that this is not a good time to ask Americans for sacrifices (or tax increases or donations or special offerings). We’ve suffered too much lately. We’ve lost too much lately. It seems a pale excuse compared to what our grandparents suffered and lost. What would a sacrificial offering look like for us?

Paragraph B

Monday night was a Presbytery meeting. For those not up on the inner workings of Presbyterian governance, it works like this. The smallest collection of Presbyterians is a congregation; the local church you find familiar. The governing institution within that church is called session, which is populated by members carrying the ordination of “Elder”. Our pastors are not actually members of our churches. They are instead members of the next biggest body, called Presbytery. I belong to Burlington Presbyterian Church, which belongs to Boston Presbytery. Presbytery is part of a larger regional body, called Synod. I think we’re in the Synod of New England? The Northeast? Then all the Synods come together in a body called General Assembly, which is a national body. There is no international body, but the various GAs usually have a certain communion with each other. It is also important to note that all Presbyterians in this body share two common books. The first is our creeds, which begin shortly where the Bible leaves off and has been added to as recently as th 60s. The second is our Book of Order, which is more or less the constitution of the church. All officers of the church vow to be guided by these two documents.

That’s a long introduction. Monday night we gathered together for a Presbytery meeting far more fraught than usual discussions. In 1996, an amendment was made to the Book of Order with the intention of preventing practicing homosexuals from being ordained in any capacity within the church. (It doesn’t actually SAY that, but that is widely understood to be the outcome.) Since then, every time GA assembles, an amendment has been proposed to Paragraph B. The latest version has come out of my church’s session and through the Boston Presbytery. It returns the language to a more Biblical focus (instead of a focus on the Confessions). (You can read more about it here) Needless to say, the original amendment was controversial and every amendment since then has also been controversial.

There is a lot to say on both sides of the issues. My main points would be:

1) We are all sinners. I personally violate the ten commandments once a week. I do a terrible job of remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy and I have not been committed to changing that sin of mine. If ordination is only available to those who are not sinners, our church will quickly be depopulated, or only populated by hypocrites.
2) Jesus doesn’t talk much about sexual sin. He’s much more interested in hypocracy and money. We should go forth and do likewise.
3) None of the amendments would mean that any church had to accept or elect as an officer or minister any person they did not think was appropriate.
4) Who are we to say who the Holy Spirit can and cannot call?

Anyway, the amendment to Paragraph B above worked it’s way up to GA and now has come back down. It must be approved by the local Presbyteries in order to be adopted. Monday night was the night that our Presbytery took that vote.

For all that we sponsored this to GA, the passing was not a given. There was one commenter as we discussed this who said, “This amendment was born here. Let it die here.”

The meeting took nearly 5 hours. I’m sure that for some people there, it was agonizing. For me, it was inspiring. There is no doubt we disagreed. There is no doubt that people felt extraordinarily passionate on both sides. I know that some of my brethren in Christ feel as thought his amendment is corrupting. I see their point, although I disagree in both form and substance. What excited me, enthused me and filled me with joy was that we could come together. We debated this hot, passionate topic with kindness and love. There was prayer and song throughout. We sat mixed together in faithfulness. During the long vote counting process, as the clock neared midnight, we sang together as we waited.

I find it utterly thrilling, in this age of division and segregation on lines of opinion, that we could and did come together to lovingly disagree with each other. It feels like, as a culture, we have increasingly written off those who disagree with us as stupid, malicious, ignorant and vindictive. The Presbyterian church holds that people of good character can disagree with each other on issues of faith. I think that is an increasingly precious and beautiful point of view.

The future of the amendment to Paragraph B is uncertain. It narrowly did pass in Boston Presbytery. While I care about the amendment, I hope and pray that the church may continue to come together to argue with each other and disagree, and yet cheerfully be part of the same community.