Sunday, August 30, 2009

An Inside Job

Shalom Lutheran Church, Alexandria
August 30, 2009
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6[Jesus] said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition….’
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’…21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.

If this gospel reading strikes you as being all about personal hygiene or “politeness”—guess again.

If these verses from Mark 7 seem to be mainly concerned with Department of Public Health regulations or “Miss Manners” pronouncements…look deeper, far deeper, into what Jesus is saying here.

Jesus isn’t merely tinkering with social mores or the intricacies of “keeping kosher.” Jesus, rather, is going to the heart of the matter—as he usually does!

And that’s why his sparring partners are so uncomfortable. The scribes and Pharisees—dead serious “pooh bahs” from the synod office in Jerusalem—they are so incensed here because Jesus is fiddling around with their moral universe—Jesus is tampering with their most cherished, time-honored assumptions about good and evil and how the world is ordered.

Please notice how these opponents attack Jesus here—indirectly, at first: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

Now, the first thing we need to get straight is that the scribes and Pharisees were not the public health department. They had no concept of germs or bacteria.

No. What the scribes and Pharisees imagined to be in jeopardy was their whole view of the universe. And they were especially fixated on the place of human beings in that universe.
You see, in the universe that the scribes and Pharisees cared about, evil was primarily an “out there” problem.

The children of Israel had been set apart, made holy by God. But they believed they lived in a dangerous, defiling world. There were all sorts of things and persons and realities “out there” that could invade their neatly ordered lives. These primarily external threats had to be guarded against—these evils needed to be warded off—at all costs.

So, to preserve the holiness—the set-apartness--of God’s people, the scribes and Pharisees had drawn up a raft of fine-print interpretations of God’s commandments. That’s what they’re referring to here in verse 3, when they speak of “the tradition of the elders,”—all the dietary regulations, ritual washings, kosher food rules that eventually were codified in the 500 volumes of the Talmud.

This whole well-ordered universe of Old Testament law, elaborated upon by generations of rabbis in the Talmud—Jesus and his followers were threatening this whole well-ordered universe by their dismissive approach to the most elementary of rules and regulations:

How they conducted themselves.

How they performed (or failed to perform) all the prescribed ritual washings.

How and with whom they prepared and ate their food.

You name it.

“Why do your disciples,” Jesus!—“why don’t they live according to the tradition of the elders?”

That’s the kind of question you expect to hear from folks who envision their carefully-crafted universe starting to crumble. It’s what persons say when they feel as though everything they’ve ever counted on is suddenly “up for grabs.”

Perhaps you know the feeling. I certainly do. In my nearly 55-years on earth there have been so many changes in how we view what’s right and wrong, what’s proper and improper, who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

Perhaps, like some of the 300 folks I met with this past Thursday at an open forum up in Thief River Falls—perhaps you have been hearing about actions of our recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. Perhaps you’re pleased with what happened there. Or perhaps you’re struggling with our church’s decision to find ways to include gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships—and to welcome some of them to the pastoral office—perhaps all of that has you wondering how “they” will affect “us” in our churches. Has our own “moral universe” in the ELCA perhaps been tipped upside down?

The Scribes and Pharisees in our gospel lesson were right to be concerned!

Because Jesus did, in fact, come to fiddle with, to re-adjust their moral universe. Jesus came to reverse the flow of things—to reverse the connection between what’s “out there” and what’s “in here.”

The scribes and Pharisees seemed fixated on evil being an enemy “out there,” an enemy to be kept at bay, warded off, in order to maintain our God-given holiness.

But Jesus pointed out that the worst, the most damaging manifestation of evil isn’t “out there” somewhere.

It’s “in here.” Evil is an “inside job.” Evil works on us from the inside out—not primarily from the outside in. Evil always aims for the heart of things—evil zeroes in on our hearts, in fact. Evil forever seeks a place of residence in the center of our being—and from that command center, evil does its very worst damage. There’s nothing evil out there that can get us, unless the rot is already taking over the core, the heart of our being.

So rather than making nice with the scribes and Pharisees--rather than engaging in a little “ain’t it awful” game with them, Jesus turned the tables, reversed all the arrows, and proposed a positively revolutionary revision in how they—and we—look at our moral and spiritual universe.
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand,” warned Jesus. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Jesus, as usual, gets to the heart of the matter—he aims his arrow for the vital spot, the center inside us ALL, the human heart. The old prophet Isaiah had it right all along: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me….”

Their hearts! That’s what Jesus wants to place in the forefront of our universe. It’s the heart that Jesus zeroes in on. For the heart is where evil always strives for a foothold. From the inside, from the heart, comes all the crud and corruption—all the stuff that turns us rotten: warped behavior, boozing, pilfering, cheapening life, hatching schemes to get what doesn’t belong to us, pining away for the greener grass on the other side of the fence--you name it!

The church has a name for all that—we call it original sin—the sin that none of us had to be taught! Even darling infants, even precious little children—they pick up this “original sin thing” all on their own.

And no one is exempt from original sin—certainly not in the church. All of us—old and young, liberal and conservative, gay and straight and everyone in between—we’re all 100% sinners, we’ve all got that deadly “heart disease.”

But fortunately, it’s our hearts that Jesus has come to heal. It’s the heart that Jesus goes after—it’s the heart that Jesus comes to make new, along with all the other things “out there” to boot!

The scribes’ and Pharisees’ Achilles heel as they constructed their image of the universe was that it left everything at a skin-deep level. Do the right things, go through the right motions, keep up the right appearances--and evil will keep its distance.

Wrong! Jesus says that’s hypocrisy—“play acting!” Evil has, since our first parents rebelled in the Garden, insinuated itself into our lives. It’s been an “inside job” all along.
….which is why Jesus always, always, always aims at the heart. Jesus goes after our center—our nerve center, the core of who we are. Jesus means to capture that. Jesus means to take over.

Jesus isn’t much of a dermatologist.

But he’s a heckuva heart surgeon—and his specialty is heart transplants, or more accurately, creating new hearts within all who belong to him, all whom he draws unto himself.

This is no skin-deep, surface-level stuff. It’s an inside job that Jesus does on us. The baptismal water seeps through our pores, the bread and wine of his Supper are made for our stomachs, the Word is designed to rattle our eardrums and find a home deep within us. Jesus bores right down to our very heart and soul, fixing us all up—from the inside out.

Because, you see, that’s how God’s universe really works—from the inside out. That’s how God’s mission in the world also operates—from the inside out, from the inside of congregations like Shalom, to the outside—to the mission field that surrounds you here in Alexandria.

From the inside out: That’s how the Jesus Way operates—reclaiming us and all things, starting with what’s at the center, starting with our soiled, broken hearts--made brand new in the image of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Letter to the Northwestern Minnesota Synod

(The following letter was emailed to the rostered leaders of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod this past Saturday, August 22nd.)

August 23, 2009

Dear Servants of Christ in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod,

May you all receive a full measure of God’s amazing grace on this day which the Lord has made!

This past week over a thousand pastors and lay voting members met at the Minneapolis Convention Center for the 11th Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—the highest legislative assembly in our church. Our gathering has been filled with vibrant worship, stirring Bible studies, testimonies from congregations engaged in God’s mission, and news about exciting ministries and initiatives in the ELCA. I encourage you to find out more about the whole assembly experience by going to the ELCA Website,

With respect to our legislative function we considered a number of reports, nominations for offices, and proposals about the work or policies of our church. The actions receiving the most attention (and news media coverage) were those related to documents produced by the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality Studies, as requested by the 2001 and 2007 Churchwide Assemblies.

During the Churchwide Assembly

· Assembly voting members entered into extensive discussion, debate and prayer as they considered proposals from the Task Force. The 24 voting members from our synod were “troopers”—putting in long hours and giving themselves fully to the difficult discussions we faced. A couple of us spoke at the microphone, and you can read what I said in debate on my personal blog:

· The social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust was adopted (after three mainly editorial amendments were approved). The social statement was approved this past Wednesday by a razor-edge vote of 676 in favor and 338 opposed---exactly the 2/3 majority vote required for all social statements by the ELCA Constitution..

· On Friday, four resolutions pertaining to the eligibility of gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships for service on one of the four ministry rosters of our church were also approved.

What does all this mean for us in the Evangelical Lutheran in America? The implications of these actions will unfold more fully over time, but here are three things we know for sure:

1. Whereas persons in committed same-sex relationships formerly were barred from serving on any of the official ministry rosters of our church, a way is now being opened for them to serve in such ministries, if they are otherwise qualified (as determined by a synod candidacy committee) and if a congregation chooses to call them. Over the coming months, policies to implement this decision will be worked out by churchwide leaders and staff, in consultation with the Conference of Bishops.

2. This change in our rostering policies will bring joy to many in our church who have worked for decades to bring us to this day. This includes gay and lesbian persons who have felt a call to ministry, their families and friends and supporters, and ELCA congregations that are ready to receive such candidates for ministry.

3. This change will be unsettling, even troubling, to others in our church who may view the actions of the Assembly as contrary to the Bible and Lutheran teaching and practice. Some may feel conscience-bound to oppose these changes and disallow partnered gay and lesbians from serving in ministry in their congregations. One of the provisions approved by the Assembly states that in this matter we must “bear one another’s burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all” (from Resolution #1 of the Ministry Policies approved by the Assembly).

In our Northwestern Minnesota Synod we have members and congregations representing the whole range of responses mentioned above. This past May our synod assembly narrowly voted down a resolution to reject the proposed social statement. The same assembly even more narrowly approved (by just two votes!) a resolution urging rejection of the proposed ministry policy changes.

Because it is important for us in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod to have time to “digest” these actions of the Churchwide Assembly, I have scheduled two open forums, which are listed below. At these meetings, I and other members of the Churchwide Assembly voting member delegation will be present to share our experiences, hear your thoughts and respond to your questions.

· Thursday, August 27, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. at Zion Lutheran Church, 505 Main Avenue North, Thief River Falls.

· Thursday, September 3, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 703 Douglas Avenue, Henning.

We on the synod staff, along with other synod leaders, will strive to keep you informed about these changes and their implications—even as you will also receive information directly from the ELCA churchwide organization and Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. I’m sure that at our upcoming Theology for Ministry Conference at Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, the rostered leaders of our synod will be discussing this matter at great length.

Finally, let me assure you that while some things have started to change about our ministry policies with respect to partnered gay and lesbian persons, much has not changed in our church. Here are some of the things that have NOT changed:

· Jesus Christ is Lord of all. God is on a great mission in the world. We who make up the church—in all our ups, downs, gifts and challenges—continue to serve God’s mission. None of these bedrock realities have changed.

· Neither individuals nor congregations are bound by these decisions in their day-to-day lives. No person and no congregation will be “forced” to believe, say or do anything they believe is not in accordance with the Word of God.

· Congregations will continue, as they always have in the Lutheran Church, to decide who they will call to be their pastors or rostered lay leaders.

Now a pastoral word of counsel for you all: If you are pleased by these changes in ministry policies, please be mindful of others in your circle of friendship who may not share your joy. If you are troubled by these actions, please respond in a calm and measured manner. Avoid hasty reactions, seek out accurate information, listen widely, pray deeply. I am available and members of the synod staff are willing to meet with rostered leaders and congregational lay leaders, at your invitation.

Let us all ask God to walk with our church as we ponder and live into the implications of these actions of our Churchwide Assembly. Although, like many of you, I was not in favor of changing our ministry policies, I am willing to abide by the decisions of the Churchwide Assembly and to continue to lead our synod forward into God’s future. God is with us, and God will see us through this chapter in our life together.

Thank you, as always, for your partnership in the gospel and in the great mission to which God has called us—to make Christ known in a world hungry for good news.

Your Brother in Christ,

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod

Friday, August 21, 2009

ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Friday

Because I'm very weary after a long day, this blog posting will be brief. The days in assembly start so early and run so late that it's difficult to get much blogging time in--and it isn't really possible or proper to do blogging straight from the assembly floor if one is a voting member.

Suffice it to say that the big story of the day was the consideration of the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies, dealing with the question of rostering gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships.

The first business item in this sequence of actions involved a reordering of the four recommendations that had been proposed by the Task Force on Human Sexuality Studies. What was formerly Resolution #3 was renumbered to be Resolution #1--as a sort of "prelude" to all that follows.

The (slightly amended) resolution reads this way: RESOLVED, that in the implementation of any resolutions regarding ministry policies, the ELCA commits itself to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all. The vote on this resolution was 771 Yes and 230 No.

Next we moved to the former Resolution #1 now renumbered as Resolution #2: RESOLVED, that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships. After considerable discussion this resolution was also approved but by a slimmer margin: 619, Yes and 402, No.

Then we moved on to former Resolution #2 now renumbered as Resolution #3: RESOLVED that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship s to serve as rostered leaders of this church.

I was able to get to a microphone and speak to this resolution (standing at a red microphone, i.e. opposed to the resolution). Here's the text of my speech:

"Because I live in the Red River Valley of the north, I pay attention to how the wind is blowing….and I have a sense for how the wind is blowing through this assembly hall.

"So my thoughts have already started to turn to what comes after today….and how we who haven’t sought these changes in our ministry policies will now live into God’s future, along with you who have poured your hearts and souls into seeking these changes.

"Some will say that if we adopt this and the resolutions yet to follow it will mark our maturing as a church….but I hope for so much more maturity from us…..and I trust that you do, too.
* I hope for the day when we will have wrestled with the scriptures so tenaciously that we finally, somehow hear them speaking to us with a more unified voice on these matters—when we’ll arrive at the deep biblical consensus that we lack at this time.
* I hunger for the day when relationships--already apparently strained by the actions we seem poised to take--will be healed between us and some of our beloved ethnic communities, ecumenical companions and global partner churches.
* I long for the day when we can’t imagine speaking the radical welcome of the gospel without always —in the same breath--speaking the transforming power of the gospel.
* I pine for the day when this church will be so obsessed with and mobilized for God’s mission-- making Jesus known in a world dying for good news—that, if possible, we’ll avoid like the plague other divisive issues that distract us from God’s mission.

"When that day comes we will be far closer to the deep, wide maturity that will be God’s gift to us."

The vote margin on this resolution was the closest of the day: 559, Yes and 451, No.

Finally the assembly considered Resolution #4 which is essentially an "implementation" resolution. I was pleased that my colleague Bishop Kurt Kusserow's amendment to this resolution was passed: "RESOLVED that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America make provision in its policies to recognize the conviction that this church should not call or roster people in a publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationship..." I believe that inclusion of this amendment in Resolution #4 will be helpful to members and congregations in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod who will have trouble accepting the Assembly's actions on the ministry policies. The final vote on Resolution #4 as amended was 650, Yes and 328, No. Note that this resolution received nearly 100 more "yes" votes than Resolution #3 received.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Wednesday

The morning plenary session led off with the first ballot for Vice President of the ELCA, a position currently held by Mr. Carlos Pena of Texas. Although Mr. Pena received 607 votes (686 were needed for election on the first ballot), we will need to take a second ballot on this key lay, "volunteer" position when we re-convene on Thursday>

The new president of the Lutheran Youth Organization, and the 21 participants in the Youth Convocation that is going on concurrently with the CWA did great work greeting the assembly--always a bright spot on the agenda. Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada greeted the assembly, inviting us all to join in a wonderfully slow and soft singing of the Doxology (great harmony in this vast assembly hall).

Two of the better presentations this morning were the stirring words of greeting from U.S. Navy Chaplain Harry Griffith and ELCA Secretary, David Swartling. Describing the Office of the Secretary as the "oil in the engine of the ELCA," Secretary Swartling showed a map outlining his state-by-state travels in his first two years as ELCA Secretary---from subzero temps in Fargo to Houston at 110 degrees!

The bulk of the afternoon session focused on discussion of and amendments to the proposed social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. By my count three (mainly editorial) amendments to the document were passed, and three amendments were defeated.

The amendment that received the most debate was one proposed by Virginia Synod Bishop James Mauney. He moved amend lines 620ff. to read (describing our historic position on marriage) "...The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have taught and recognized marriage as a normative, lifelong covenant between a man and a woman... (the amendment adding the words "have taught" and "normative, lifelong.") The Mauney amendment would have also added the following sentence at line 628: "Marriage thus provides the possibility for the added blessing of children and the joy and responsibility for raising them in the faith."

Much of the criticism of the Mauney amendment focused on that last sentence which some in the assembly "heard" as being critical of or exclusionary toward married couples who for whatever reason can't have children....or of situations where children are born outside of marriage. In the end the assembly defeated this amendment by a vote of 432 in favor, 563 opposed.

Once all amendments had been dealt with, the social statement itself was discussed. Although I went to a queue to offer my own comments critical of the social statement, debate was closed off before I had a chance to speak. Here is the message I planned to deliver:

"Let me begin by thanking the task force and staff for the patient, resilient ways they addressed their long, arduous, multi-part task. It is not surprising to me that over the course of 7+ years one-third of the task force members have 'turned over.' I hope that future assemblies will avoid asking one task force to take on so large a task.

"I also want to acknowledge that there are some very helpful things in this statement....such as the way it helps us see that there are more than two positions, more like four positions, on homosexuality....and I also affirm the stirring words in this document concerning commercial sexual exploitation, the "commodification of the body," and similar topics. Thank you for that.

"But I also must register some concerns about this document.

"First, I look for a social statement as a theological document to have THEOLOGY clearly evident as the Windows "operating system" throughout the whole document, helping us and the members of the wider society who may be listening in to think more thoughtfully and deeply with the Word of God leading the way. It strikes me that there are sections of this document, particuarly toward the end of it, where I felt as though the train had left the station, but the theological cargo didn't get loaded.

"Second, I look for a social statement as a teaching statement to use the best tools from our Lutheran treasure-chest, and if new modes of reflection are proposed, to build good bridges to them FROM time-honored Lutheran ways of doing ethical reflection. At several points I wish this document did a better job at that. To cite just one example, our rich Lutheran understanding of 'orders of creation' deserves something more noble than the kind of 'burial' that it gets here in footnote #11.

"Third, it seems to me that this statement tends to move us away from saying that there is throughout the scriptural and confessional witness a FORM to sexual relationships that we are confident has the blessing and command of God. It seems to me that there is proposed in this document no FORM of sexual expression that grounds us, serves as our North Star reference point....but instead we are directed to certain qualities of all kinds of sexual relationships (of whatever form)--that they be loving, committed, faithful, etc (all good things, by the way!)

"That subtle move away from the 'formfulness' of human sexuality is perhaps most troubling to me because I believe it will diminish our capacity to address faithfully other, future issues regarding human sexuality that will surely arise in the years to come. I suspect that many ELCA Lutherans who are not present with us in this assembly hall would agree with me in this concern. Thank you."

During the extended debate on the sexuality statement, two of the most amazing things happened. First, during the mid-afternoon, a tornado briefly touched down in Minneapolis--damaging part of the Convention Center roof (we were safe the whole time, but could hear the sirens)....AND damaging the spire of nearby Central Lutheran Church. Amazing!

But then, in the early evening, when we finally took our vote on the social statement, as amended (requiring a 2/3 majority vote, based on the ELCA Constitution), I witnessed something I had yet to see: Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson being stunned by the outcome of the vote: 676 in favor, and 338 opposed. The vote percentages were 66.67% YES and 33.33% NO.


ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Tuesday

The first full day of the Churchwide Assembly began with Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson's oral report to the assembly. Bishop Hanson set a positive tone for the Gathering, challenging voting members and visitors to ponder the question--throughout the week--"What shall be our witness here?" Stressing that the story of the assembly was not yet written, he challenged everyone to pray and ponder the story they would be sharing "back home" of what happened here.

Then the assembly moved into an extended Quasi Committee of the Whole consideration of the proposed social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. Although Bishop Hanson encouraged voting members to avoid discussion of the yet-to-come Recommendation on Ministry Policies (regarding the possible rostering of gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships), I noticed that most of the speakers during the Committee of the Whole time still focused their comments on the pros and cons of possible changes in the ELCA's policies toward gays and lesbians.

Tuesday afternoon featured reports on the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, funding for the ELCA's work on HIV/AiDS, and a great presentation by Lutheran World Relief President John Nunes, a pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod leading this joint ELCA-LCMS relief agency. Tuesday afternoon and evening afforded voting members and visitors the chance to attend two rounds of hearings on key assembly business items.

ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Monday

Over 1000 voting members from across the 65 synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gathered here in Minneapolis for the 11th Churchwide Assembly (CWA).

Bishops of the church actually joined with ELCA Church Council, synod vice presidents and selected churchwide staff members for some pre-assembly meetings on Sunday (August 16) and Monday morning (August 17). In addition to hearing an update from the Board of Pensions regarding ways the stock market downturn have affected pension fund performance, the group heard a financial report from ELCA Treasurer Christina Jackson-Skelton. I was pleased to learn that our NW MN Synod was one of 17 (out of 65) synods that have remitted more mission support dollars to the ELCA thus far in 2009 than we did in the same time period of 2008.

Following a celebrative opening service of Holy Communion and supper, the first plenary session of the assembly convened at 7 p.m. on Monday in the Minneapolis Convention Center. Early in the session we learned that nearly half (48.97%) of voting members were attending their first CWA. Twin Cities host bishops Craig Johnson and Peter Rogness welcomed the CWA participants and announced that, as a welcome gift to all the visiting Lutherans, the two metro synods were purchasing and planting 66 trees in the cities in honor of the 65 synods and the churchwide organization.

The major business item on Monday evening was an amendment to the Rules of Organization proposed by Allegheny Synod Bishop Greg Pile that would have required a 2/3 majority (super-majority) to approve the Recommendation on Ministry Policies scheduled for consideration on Friday. Many folks lined up at the green (agree) and red (disagree) microphones, and a lengthy discussion of the merits of the Pile amendment ensued.

I had a chance to speak in favor of the Pile amendment, and here is the substance of what I said:

"Over a year ago—long before we knew just what ministry policy changes might be proposed—the NW MN Synod Council voted to ask the ELCA Church Council to propose a 2/3 voting requirement on any changes in ministry policies we might consider at this assembly. We took this action because we sensed that if policies are changed, a 2/3 vote will indicate how seriously and carefully we have addressed this important topic.

"Let me also offer an opinion regarding the apparent contradiction between requiring a 2/3 vote of this assembly—even though the policies in question were originally approved by the ELCA Church Council by simple majority votes.

"The behaviors that are either affirmed or forbidden for ministers in Vision and Expectations and Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline did not emerge out of the clear blue when the Church Council drafted and approved these documents. These behaviors, rather, represent the 'wisdom of the ages'—articulated again and again in our Bible, our creeds, our confessions and the ministerial standards to predecessor church bodies.

"To cite a couple of non-sexual examples: Lutherans in North America didn’t start to require their ministers not to steal or not to break pastoral confidences in the early 1990s, because the ELCA Church Council approved a couple of documents. The force of those documents, comes not just from a vote by the ELCA Church Council—but rather, the force of these documents arises from the time-honored, faithful wisdom embodied in those documents. We will do well, if we wish to amend any of the substantial content of these documents, to hold ourselves to the highest level of consensus in decision-making."

After about an hour of debate the amendment finally came to a vote, and it was defeated by a vote of 436 in favor of the amendment, 584 opposed. To many of us this vote seemed to be an "early indicator" of the way things might go on subsequent votes--on the proposed social statement on human sexuality and the Recommendation on Ministry Policies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Response to Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust

A Response to Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust

It’s summer and the ELCA is embroiled in another extended discussion of human sexuality. We do this sort of thing at least every other year (whenever a Churchwide Assembly is scheduled), and it’s been going on for decades now. Sex must be a big deal in our church.

But no, we nervously respond, sex really isn’t that big a deal—at least it shouldn’t be. Sex and what we believe about sex “is not the gospel,” we say. It is a penultimate thing. How our church decides about issues of human sexuality should not be a church-dividing matter, we contend. In fact, if we repeat that loudly enough and often enough—“Human sexuality is not a church-dividing issue!”—we hope it may even come to pass. People will settle down, “monitor their anxieties” and stop talking about division in the church over something as secondary as sexuality. Sex isn’t really that big a deal, after all!

But it is, dear friends. And we best come clean about that.

Sex is a big deal. In the biblical narrative—the story of our salvation—sex is, at almost every turn, a big deal. It may not be the gospel, but human sexuality is forever entwined with, always bumping up against the good news of God’s extravagant love and grace, told in the story of Israel and Israel’s greatest son, Jesus, and in the ongoing life of the New Israel into which we have all been grafted. Sex is always a big deal in that story. Sex stories abound in the Bible!

Sex is intimately bound up with the good news of our creation by God. It is not just that, in the creation narratives, God’s making of the first humans is the creation of a sexually-paired duo, who are immediately commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) It’s not just that we bear the image of our creator God as a complementary, male-and-female dyad (Genesis 1:27). Sex is intimately bound up with my creation and your creation. When Martin Luther defines the meaning of the First Article of the creed, he begins by saying that “I believe that God has created me….” In the wondrous love, in the amazing sexual congress between Hans and Margarethe Luther, little Martin was created by God. And we all know that to be true for our own lives—it’s as basic as that. I am here, writing these words, because my parents, Lawrence and Roberta, met, fell in love, married and conceived me.

Sexuality imbues our most startling images for God’s redemption of us and the whole human family, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Searching for the most powerful, memorable images for the relationship between God and God’s redeemed people, the apostolic writer speaks of Christ the bridegroom and his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:32). How could that image not pop up, given the Old Testament’s predilection for speaking of God’s conjugal relationship with Israel, (Isaiah 54:5) his spouse?

In the new community that Jesus Christ has created at the Cross and the Empty Tomb, the language so often chosen for our relationships with one another is grounded in our existence as sexual beings who beget and nurture sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. Such use of family-based similes and metaphors in describing the church makes us nervous, but to ignore or downplay them is to overlook much of the language of the New Testament. Sexuality is never far from the center in Christian existence.

Sex is a big deal in the ordinary lives of human beings, created, redeemed and sanctified by God. Sexuality is elemental, foundational, necessary to our existence as human beings. It’s not just that we’re “obsessed with sex” (though there is truth in that); it’s that sex is a big deal because the “complementarity” of males and females, men and women, is hard-wired into the fabric of our creation by God. Sexuality is the means by which God begets sons and daughters, heirs of the Kingdom, dwellers in the New Creation in Jesus Christ.

And, at the risk of over-simplification, most of our greatest social issues in the 21st century are rooted in sexual matters. Mountains of sociological data point to the fact that as things go in what Alan Carlson and others call the “natural family,”[1] so goes society as a whole. If we care about children, we will care about the parents who beget them and the families that nurture them—simple as that. Which means that we will care deeply about the ordering of sexual attraction between men and women, we will commend marriage to the next generation, and we will do all within our power to strengthen marriages and families.

All of us in the human community have a stake in that; but members of the Body of Christ have a particular stake in that. What we believe, say and do in the realm of human sexuality can—rather than tearing the church apart—build us up in love and make us more faithful servants in God’s mission. Heavens--how we handle the issue of human sexuality might even make us a more attractive, faithful, caring church—the kind of church people might want to join!

Sexuality may not be the gospel, but it is a big deal—and we ignore that at our peril. Sexuality is bound up with the question of the human future—the begetting and the rearing of the next generation. Sexuality furnishes the most pungent similes and metaphors in Scripture for describing the intimate, self-giving love of God for the human family. Relationships grounded in human sexuality—husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons—are woven throughout the biblical story. How our church, how any church, treats marriage and family life will either enhance or detract from our service in God’s mission in the world. Make no mistake: sex is a big deal!

So, I ask, how have we in the ELCA done in formulating a social statement on human sexuality? Has our great church produced a great document that does justice to the gravity and grace of human sexuality? Have we in the ELCA addressed as powerfully and as richly as possible the real social issues that arise from our life as sexually-differentiated human beings? Are we now poised to be a church that has something powerful to say to our society in the early 21st century about the wonder of human sexuality and the tremendous possibilities of well-ordered sexual lives, for the sake of our human future? Are we ready to speak confidently, compellingly to our society as a church that still believes that “the Lord God in his goodness created us male and female, and by the gift of marriage founded human community in a joy that begins now and is brought to perfection in the life to come?”[2]

Alas, as I read Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, I cannot honestly say that we have done our best to plumb the heights and depths of human sexuality so as to say something meaningful and compelling to the society in which we live. As a colleague in ministry put it, only we Lutherans could take something as exciting as sex and write about it in such a pedestrian way.

Let me name three deep concerns that I have about Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.

1. Framing the Issue. Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, although proposed to us as a theological teaching document consistently fails to exhibit a deep engagement with and thoughtful appropriation of the Lutheran theological treasury. The rich law-gospel dialectic for which Lutherans are known is not the “operating system” in this teaching document. The document sets aside—in a footnote, no less![3]—our time-honored understanding of “orders of creation” as deep, dynamic, caring structures that God has built into the Creation to bring forth and sustain human life in all its multi-form abundance. In the place of such profound theological and ethical categories, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust sees everything sexual through the sociological lens of “trust in relationships” or “social trust.” (The word “trust” shows up nearly two hundred times in the document!) Now, to be sure, social trust is a very good thing! Even thoughtful pagans will agree to that. But “social trust” is scarcely a suitable “lens” for a distinctively Christian or churchly word about human sexuality.

2. Sidestepping the Question of Form. The Western Christian tradition has consistently held that human sexuality has about it a normative shape or form. By privileging one form of sexual expression—the one-flesh bond of a man and a woman united in marriage—the tradition has ruled out every competing form of sexual expression. Although this strikes our modern sensibilities as being unfair, the heterosexual structure of human sexuality is actually a divine gift, intimately bound up with the civilizational task of bringing forth and rearing the next generation of human beings. Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, however, sidesteps the notion that there even is a normative form of sexual expression. All that counts is the quality of sexual relationships (be they heterosexual, homosexual or whatever)—that they be loving, committed, monogamous, lifelong, etc. Driven by the desire to normalize gay and lesbian relationships, this document effectively removes our grounds for critiquing, let alone ruling out, other forms of sexual expression. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised that the following words don’t show up even once in this document: bestiality, bisexual, incest, masturbation, or polygamy. (By the way, “singles” are mentioned only three times in the document!)

3. Downplaying the Fruitfulness of Sexuality. Although Human Sexuality: Gift and Task speaks often of families (the word “family” shows up nearly fifty times), it says little about just how such families come into existence. An extra-terrestrial could read the section on Marriage: Shelter and Context for Trust (lines 607-750) and still not realize that procreation is integral to marriage. Again, the vocabulary of the document is telling: the words “conceive” and “intercourse” each show up just once, “birth” appears four times, and “mother” and “father” are each mentioned three times. It is amazing to me that a proposed social statement on sexuality can speak so often about intimacy but so seldom about generativity. What a rare opportunity we are missing to teach our young ones about the marvelous crucible for begetting and nurturing children that God graciously gives to us in the “first institution” of holy matrimony!

So, with regret, I must register my deep disappointment with this proposed social statement. Our church has invested tremendous “capital” in this project—both money and human capital—with precious little to show for our efforts. The fault here should not be laid solely at the doorstep of the task force that has drafted this document. They are good and decent people, charged with a daunting task, and asked to discharge their duties in the unsettled atmosphere of a society-wide debate over one small aspect of human sexuality, i.e. the place of persons who identify themselves as gay and lesbian within our church and our society. For far too long, our over-focus on homosexuality has been the “tail wagging the dog”—making it hard, if not impossible, for our church to address adequately the whole gamut of human sexuality.

By dwelling on peripheral matters, we have squandered the opportunity to speak compellingly to the heart of the most important issues of human sexuality in our time. We have failed to muster the maturity and thoughtfulness needed to address adequately the issue at hand. We as a Lutheran church body are capable of doing so much better than this!

[2] Liturgy for marriage, Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 203.
[3] Footnote 11 in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Something Old..New...Borrowed...Blue

Wedding Homily for Aaron and Kristen/August 8, 2009/First Lutheran Church, Sioux Falls, SD.

Lessons: Colossians 3:12-17; Philippians 2:1-4 and 4:4-9; John 15:9-12

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…
You’re wearing all those things, right, Kristen? I’ve been dropping hints for months now that you better do that. You need to be wearing something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.—for good luck, of course, on your wedding day. (Aaron—you’re off the hook on this one. It’s a “bride thing.” Just nod, smile and agree-- OK?)

For over four centuries, you see, brides have been meeting grooms at altars with something old (representing the legacy of your ancestors), something new (pointing you to your future), something borrowed (because you owe so much to so many) and something blue….blue because..well…because “blue” rhymes with “new” and this is a poem, don’tcha know?

Well that’s all kind of fun stuff, but I’m here to tell you that you guys are going to need a lot more than luck to make this marriage-thing work. And fortunately Someone is here today who has brought, is bringing and will continue to bring you more than good luck.

God is here today, and that’s the best news of all. God has showed up for your wedding day.

And God intends to keep showing up in your new life together as husband and wife.

And because God never shows up empty-handed, God brings gifts along for the ride….four gifts in particular. Think of them as your first four wedding gifts—and you don’t even have to wait until tomorrow to open them up. No—God is plopping them down in your laps right here, right now.

First, God has something OLD for you--older than the hills, in fact. It’s your identity as children of God. Before the first star began to twinkle God was thinking of you, scheming and finagling how to call you forth, claim you and reclaim you in Christ, and make you his precious children forever.

Your reading from Colossians addresses you as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” because that’s who you are in the eyes of the One who countsmore than anyone else. God has promised “from of old” to be your God, to lay hold of you, and give you a future without end in Jesus Christ.

How awesome it is that you’re wearing this identity so publicly today, in a service of worship (not a “chapel of love” ceremony), anchored in God’s grace and centered in the Holy Communion that will be your first meal as husband and wife.

God also has something NEW wrapped up for you today, and that’s the gift of forgiveness. In your marital toolbox, dear children, there is nothing more useful! But please notice: this forgiveness must always be new, because—believe me!—you’ll need a fresh supply of it every day.

Here’s why forgiveness has to be ever-new: it’s because you’re both sinners--precious, lovable, treasured, really very cool sinners….but sinners, through and through!....and I could provide rich documentary evidence of that fact….but I won’t!

If all goes well in your marriage you will live together with such honesty and abandon that there’ll be no hiding just how good you both are at sinning!

Aaron, because he’s a guy, will regularly need some “cave bear” time, as all men do. And Kristen, because she’s a girl, will need to tell Aaron everything on her mind, even when Aaron’s heard it all before…and you’ll both drive each other nuts and wonder why you ever thought you could love each other for a whole lifetime...

Then, precisely then, you’ll need a daily dose of the kind of fresh forgiveness that only God gives. Yesterday’s forgiveness will not do—yesterday’s forgiveness is like stale pizza with green mold on it in the back of the fridge!

God doles out forgiveness in daily doses like bread, water, oxygen, cell phone minutes and all the other necessities of life. God intends for you to share only NEW words, only FRESH declarations of forgiveness to one another.

To the something OLD and something NEW, God also adds something BORROWED: the best hand-me-down there is: the “you-first” love we call agape.

Now I realize that love might not seem to be “on loan” because it feels like it just springs up from deep inside you….especially that romantic, tingly, electric love of newlyweds….but what God wants for you today is more than the passionate chemistry of young love. God intends that you abide in a deeper love that will bind you together through thick and thin, the “you-first” love we call agape.

Your gospel reading from John speaks of this love’s “pass-it-on nature: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you…” says Jesus, even as he adds a friendly command: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

God’s fourth gift to you is something BLUE…as in “true blue”--loyal, and dependable. This something BLUE is God’s gift of faithfulness, which is at the heart of marriage. It’s the most important word you’ll speak to each other today: “I promise to be faithful to you…”
Faithfulness is about more than “not cheating,” or not having a “wandering eye.” It’s about forsaking every person or thing that might come between you—forsaking even good stuff like work, study, pastimes or good causes—forsaking them whenever they might threaten your marriage.

God, who has “faithfulness” down pat, graciously imparts to you the gift of “true blue” faithfulness that will see you through all that is to come.

Your identity as children of God…fresh forgiveness….”you-first” love…and sturdy faithfulness—something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Aren’t God’s gifts better than any old “good luck charms?” They’re your first wedding gifts—from God’s own hand—and as you live into these gifts you will receive the full, free, rich life God has in store for you--this day and always.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Filling the Jesus-Shaped Hole

Trinity Lutheran Church, Pelican Rapids, MN
August 2, 2009
John 6:24-35
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
It’s been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world up into two kinds of people….and those who don’t!
Reducing anything to just two choices—either this or that—is always dangerous. Life is always more complex than that. Where some see just two options, others easily perceive four, five, six or more possibilities.
And yet here in this gospel text from John, chapter 6, Jesus declares that when all is said and done, there are just two kinds of food in the world.
In verse 27 Jesus says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…”
Did you catch that? Two food options—just two—take your pick: there’s the “food that perishes” and the “food that endures for eternal life.” What are you hungry for? What kind of grub can I rustle up for you?
At first glance the choice seems deceptively easy: who would ever choose the “food that perishes” if your other choice is the “food that endures for eternal life?” The choice is obvious, isn’t it?
But not so fast. Earlier in John 6, Jesus provided a whole boatload of “food that perishes.” Jesus multiplied a little boy’s lunch into a gigantic picnic that filled 5,000 growling stomachs--with twelve baskets of leftovers, to boot!
And every last morsel of that picnic, was (by Jesus’ own definition) “food that perishes”—that is, the stuff we think of as food, the sustenance we consume every 24 hours, just to keep body and soul together.
Don’t be too quick to write off this first kind of food, dear friends. We need some of it every day. People die when they’re perpetually short on the “food that perishes,” the carbs and fats and proteins that vitalize us and keep us on the move.
Jesus cares about the “food that perishes.” Jesus knows that all God’s children need such food, at regular intervals, or else we die. Jesus would have us care about this real food in a real world filled with real hunger! Just last week, youth from Trinity got up to their elbows in providing that sort of “food” down in New Orleans—12,000 youth and adults heading out on each oft here days, launched out into post-Katrina service projects among folks hungering for the “food that perishes.”
But even the finest cuisine, the tastiest banquet fare, the most sumptuous delicacies—it all ends up in those little Tupperware containers…tucked toward the back of the fridge…with green mold on it, after about a week. This is the short-shelf-life food that will not keep, will not last long enough to get us where we’re going…to the full, free, rich, eternal life God created us to live.
That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread…”
Jesus differentiates between “food that perishes” and “food that endures for eternal life,” never denying, though, that we need BOTH kinds of food.
For you see the “food that perishes” is necessary, absolutely necessary for this life…
….even though it is never sufficient for the full, rich, free eternal life that God created us for!
So Jesus whets our appetite for the “food that endures for eternal life.” That’s what’s so great about this sixth chapter of St. John’s gospel. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us the wondrous, eye-popping, ear-opening story of the Feeding of the 5000….
But only John’s gospel draws deeper into what the Feeding tells us, how the Feeding addresses our deeper hunger, our hunger to have that “Jesus-shaped hole” inside of us filled up!
Here’s the kicker: it’s as if the Feeding of the 5000 in John six is actually the appetizer—not the meal itself—but the hors d’ouvres that get our mouths watering for the Good Stuff, the Banquet that is yet to come…
….and here in today’s gospel lesson Jesus describes what that real Banquet is: the “food that endures for eternal life.” Loaves and fishes, carbs and proteins, take us only so far…get us through one more day….but Jesus offers something far richer, more hunger-satisfying, more thirst-quenching….and he doesn’t dangle it out there, just beyond our reach, either. No, John tells us that the “food that endures for eternal life” is the precisely the food that “the Son of Man will give you.”
And as this tantalizing promise unfolds before us we realize that this “food that endures for eternal life” is none other than Jesus himself. “I gave you loaves and fishes yesterday,” Jesus tells the crowd, “but today I’m serving up the Main Course: myself.”
And here, dear friends, we encounter the question, the crisis, the tipping point. Is anybody hungry for what Jesus most wants to give us, this “food that endures for eternal life?”
Our dilemma, our sin, is this: we’re almost always ready to settle for less! The immediate reaction of the crowd here in John chapter 6 reflects human nature down to its core. Jesus feeds 5000 folks, and they want Jesus to get into politics! “Let’s make him our king, so he can keep the good times rolling.”
And when Jesus catches wind of their earth-bound plan, he flees—heads for the hills! (John 6:15) He gets out of Dodge as fast as his feet will carry him!
Because while the “food that perishes” is necessary for life, it is never sufficient for the full, free, rich, eternal life we were created for….and THAT’s what Jesus aches to share with you and me and all people!
That’s what, as followers of Jesus, we have to offer our neighbors, near and far. Fill their bellies, look after their immediate needs, to be sure….but don’t forget to serve up the Good Stuff, the only “food” that will stick to their ribs and “carry” them forever! Give them carbs and proteins and vitamins and minerals….but, whatever you do, give them Jesus, too!
At this critical moment in our church’s life, as we take this “missional turn” in the 21st century church…is our golden opportunity to get this stuff straight, to never short-sell what God gives the world through you and me who bear Christ wherever we go.
You and I and everyone else on this old ball of mud are always ready to settle for something less—to settle for “empty calories,” junk food that leaves us hungry. If our tummies aren’t growling and our pantries are full and our 401Ks are growing again, all is well, we think….
…..even though Jesus aptly calls all of that good and necessary stuff the “food that perishes.”
Five seconds after your heart stops beating it all gets tossed into probate court and your heirs fight over the leftovers.
The “food that perishes” takes us only so far, it’s never sufficient for the whole journey God is taking us on.
And that’s why our most joyful task, our highest calling is to whet our appetites and tempt our neighbors with the savory aroma of the Good Stuff, the “food that endures for eternal life.” And so we name the ache inside of us, and God uses us to fill that emptiness with the only food that lasts, the food that is Jesus—his serving life, his sin-forgiving death, his death-defying resurrection.
So, where does that leave us? Where has God placed us in this aching, hungry world….filled with folks who all have a Jesus-shaped hole inside themselves?
In many respects you here at Trinity are right in the thick of it. You don’t need to pack your bags and head somewhere else in the world to be about God’s mission.
You can just walk out your doors—because the whole world has come to you. The world in all its multi-colored, variegated splendor has moved into Pelican Rapids. Whoever imagined that this quiet, lovely community would be welcoming new neighbors from all over the globe?
By bringing into your town so many immigrants, new friends and neighbors like the hundreds who showed up here for last evening’s “At the River” concert….by plopping down, right under your noses, this sea of humanity….God is pitching you a slow ball, right over home-plate, in the hope that you’ll knock that ball right out of the park!
And, thank God, you’re responding to this amazing missional opportunity, offering not only the “food that perishes” but serving up the “food that endures to eternal life,” serving up Jesus, the Sin-Bearer, Death-Defeater, Future-Opener…Jesus!
Your neighbors, old and new, are hungry. Fill their growling stomachs—oh yes—but that’s just the appetizer, the hors d’ouvres that prepare the way for the Good Stuff. Give them Jesus. Fill the Jesus-shaped hole in their souls with “the food that endures to eternal life.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.