Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lutheran pastors across this nation find ourselves in a difficult place today. The more than one thousand delegates who attended our church's national assembly last week took some actions that are controversial and potentially divisive about an issue that is profoundly personal and inherently sensitive—human sexuality. The invective has already begun. The internet was burning up this past week with knee-jerk response, emotional outburst, as well as measured thoughtfulness. This is understandably the case. The church has taken positions that challenge what some consider to be basic beliefs. My concern is that many people simply fail to understand well what actually happened.
In this context, it is incumbent upon the pastors of our church to speak out clearly, sensitively, and pastorally—both to do our best to help folks understand the actions and to set them in their proper context.
You will see in your bulletins this morning something more than a simple summary of what our national assembly has set before us. A single sermon cannot do what needs to be done carefully here, but these summaries will certainly help. They note something of the range of actions taken by the assembly, so that our attention not be drawn only to the ones that seem controversial. Our church considered and acted on a large number of important matters and set many laudable mission and ministry goals for us. Examples include full communion with the United Methodist Church and malaria and HIV/AIDS initiatives. You will also see some greater detail concerning the adopted social statement on human sexuality. There too, most of what the statement teaches is fairly non-controversial. Indeed, I consider it to be a superb, biblically grounded, and sensitively constructed teaching document for us. I sincerely commend the entire statement to you. I hope you will take the time to read and to contemplate its few dozen pages. I will make copies available as soon as they are published. In the meantime, you may find the text on the internet at www.elca.org. And I propose that we begin using our "Culture of Conversation" times on the first Sundays of each month as forums for delving more deeply into this statement—beginning next Sunday between services here in the sanctuary.
The controversy centers on the four "Recommendations on Ministry Policies," provided in abbreviated form on the other side of the bulletin insert. The first of these has already and will continue to be overlooked in less temperate responses. I hope that if you hear nothing else this morning, you hear the intention of this first resolution. Our church, at the outset, commits itself to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all. It is not the intention of the assembly or of the church to force anything on anyone. One of the most revered of Martin Luther's biblically-inspired principles is that it is never good to go against the conscience of a Christian. It is what gave him the courage to stand up to the pope of his day in opposition to the practice of selling indulgences. He did that, we should remember, as a priest; and he never intended to leave his church. Indeed, he never did leave; he was forced out. What he stood for was the validity of the bound Christian conscience, dead set against a practice of the church, but always committed to that church's unity in Christ.
You will see that the fourth resolution takes extensive pains to see to it that no policy or act of the church force the hand or heart of any member, congregation, or synod of the church. The profound differences that exist among us on a variety of issues will continue to be respected. Your Christian conscience will not be abused in any way. And we are called to continue living together as this church struggles to add flexibility to its policies in order to honor the diversity of bound conscience that exists on the matter of human sexuality—especially, as detailed in the second and third resolutions, the status of persons in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.
It strikes me as oddly coincidental that the readings for this particular Sunday—which are a part of a set three-year cycle of Sunday passages—bring before us these particular texts. The second lesson speaks of true religion, which is something I believe that we all seek. I can imagine that those who are offended by some part or the whole of the actions taken by our national assembly will use this passage to challenge or to vilify those decisions as directing God's people away from "true religion." I would heartily disagree; James defines true religion not in legalistic terms but in terms of the freedom of the gospel to be about the work of doing justice. A careful reading of the social statement reveals a conscientious attempt to see that justice might be more carefully done both among us in the church and by us as the church in the world. Concerns for developing trust in human relationships, protecting children and youth, maintaining the value of monogamy and a covenant of commitment, and care for the vulnerable comprise essential parts of this document.
The gospel reading for this morning could also easily seem to lead in the direction of judgment against the flexibility that the assembly seeks on specific forms of human relationships. It seems clear cut and ripe for the plucking in defense of a status-quo approach to complex scriptural and social matters. After all, the words are from the mouth of our Lord, and he condemns the misuse of sexuality—as well as a number of other evils.
However, a careful reading of the text reveals that Jesus is speaking out against the approach of the Pharisees to some aspects of religious observance. Jesus is, after all, the one who, especially in Mark's gospel, seems always to be violating various practices that were called for at the time. He "heals on the Sabbath, touches a leper and a dead child, is touched by the woman suffering from hemorrhages and does not fast. He eats with tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Each of these is a violation of the Pharisees' understanding of religious laws that were designed to maintain boundaries between faithful or observant Jews and all others. Jesus' behavior seems to say: beware when religious observance gets in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law, which is love of God and neighbor." ("ID Check," Cynthia M. Campbell, The Christian Century, August 22, 2006. p. 16.)
Our church in assembly is, as I see it, calling upon us to learn the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach here in Mark-to love God and neighbor more fiercely, without letting the disagreements that are not at the heart of the gospel get in the way of our remaining together around Word and Sacrament.
"The question that drove the Pharisees and that motivates some contemporary Christians is an important one: in a religiously diverse culture, how does one maintain Christian identity and integrity? When we respond, we can do no better than Jesus did when asked what was the greatest of all of God's commands — love God and neighbor. It is as simple and as complex as that." (Campbell)
I was deeply moved by the words of our presiding bishop, Mark Hanson at the assembly. He spoke as my pastor and as pastor to all. And what a blessing to be able to listen to him in taped form via the internet.
Here are some of his final comments to the Churchwide Assembly:
He pledged "to speak well of you and of this church, and I ask you to do the same."
"One way I will speak well of you is not to use the word 'fear' to describe those who oppose the actions that prevailed in many of our discussions. It's not helpful to our life together. It's not respectful of deeply held convictions shaped by theology and Scripture and faith."
"I am committed to the ELCA continuing to be a church body where people feel safe to teach, to preach, to lead and to serve in ways that they believe are consistent with the vows one takes in ordination and the promises one makes in the affirmation of Baptism."
The church needs to be a safe place for "rich theological conversation, biblical inquiry and faith expressions and explorations, a quality of the Lutheran Church for 500 years." Bishop Hanson said the steps of implementing the actions of the assembly will take time. "My prayer and my plea is that we take that time together rather than separately."
Speaking to members who opposed the church's decisions on ministry policies, Hanson requested that, if they are wondering about their place in the ELCA, "let us be part of that discernment."
"Take time with your decision. Step back and understand the magnitude of the decision if you choose to leave, because we will be diminished by your absence," he said, adding that the capacity for the ELCA to do its work will also be diminished.
The Good News of Jesus Christ "is too good to squander with internal conflicts that will drain our energies when our capacity is to bring the Good News to the world so that all might know Jesus."
Let me quote as well in full his pastoral response immediately following the decisions made on the ministry policies:
"I want to share some words. As one you have called to serve as pastor of this church, I have been standing here thinking about my 23 years as a parish pastor and how differently I would go into various contexts. Gathering with a family or a group of people who had just experienced loss, or who perhaps were wondering if they still belonged, or in fact felt deeply that ones to whom they belong had been severed from them, I would probably turn to words such as Romans 8:
Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? [. . .] For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:34-35, 38-39).
"But then I thought, what if I were going into a family, a group, or a community that had always wondered if they belonged, and suddenly now had received a clear affirmation that they belonged? All of the wondering about the dividing walls and feelings of separation seem to have dropped away. That would be a very different conversation. I would probably read to them out of Ephesians:
But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. [. . .] In him, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:13-14, 21-22).
"But then I thought, what if those two groups were together, but also in their midst were those who had neither experienced loss nor the feeling of the dividing wall of separation coming down, but were worried whether all that had occurred might sever the unity that is ours in Christ, and might be wondering if their actions might have contributed to reconciliation or separation? If all those people were together in a room, I would read from Colossians:
As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).
"That passage gives invitation and expectation that those deeply disappointed today will have the expectation and the freedom to continue to admonish and to teach in this church. And so, too, those who have experienced reconciliation today are called to humility. You are called to clothe yourselves with love. But we are all called to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, remembering again and again that we are called in the one body. I will invite youinto important, thoughtful, prayerful conversations about what all of this means for our life together. But what is absolutely important for me is that we have the conversation together.
"We finally meet one another not in our agreements or our disagreements, but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ."
Let us pray. Oh, God, gracious and holy, mysterious and merciful, we meet this day at the foot of the cross, and there we kneel in gratitude and awe that you have loved us so much that you would give the life of your son so that we might have life in his name. Send your Spirit, the Spirit of the risen Christ that has been breathed into us. May it calm us. May your Spirit unite us. May it continue to gather us. In Jesus' name, Amen.