I have neglected posting even though many amazing and wonderful things have happened in the last number of months: The Iowa Supreme Court's ruling allowing same-sex marriage, as well as the New England States either adopting marriage or clearing the way; the ongoing debates over healthcare, that show just how deep the rift is in our society between those who disagree; and two weeks ago, my denomination of the ELCA had its bi-ennial Churchwide Assembly, which turned out to be amazing on several levels.
I had the good fortune to be present for 4 of the 7 days of the recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, and am still in the process of preparing some thoughts related to those experiences.
In the meantime, I want to share the sermon I preached at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Sanata Monica, CA, on the Sunday after Churchwide. My friend, Pr. James Boline, is the pastor of that church, and was greatly kind in accommodating my request to preach there after Churchwide. The inspiration to do so came about two months earlier, and it worked out well for both of us, I think.
Sermon on Ephesians 6: 10-20
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, CA
August 23, 2009
Let us pray: God of might and strength, mercy and grace, guard us from all that assails us, turns us against each other, and turns us from you. In the assaults of the devil on our souls, protect us. In the moments we doubt your wisdom, protect us with faith. When we are tempted to shout others down, hold our tongues. And when we need to speak, proclaim your mysterious, life-changing Gospel, through our living mouths. Through the One who has given us his body and blood as eternal food, Jesus your son, we pray. Amen.
There’s an old ballad from the American south that has been on my mind lately, as a possible rift in our national church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America around matters of sexual orientation has grown in possibility. The words of its last line convey the central message: “My home’s across the Blue Ridge mountains, my home’s across the Blue Ridge mountains, my home’s across the Blue Ridge mountains, and I never expect to see you anymore.”
And I never expect to see you anymore. How can I keep from crying? the song continues. It bites a deep part of me, this prospect of eternal separation, whether it be from people I will miss terribly, or even from those I don’t particularly care to see again. Many cried those on Friday, in such anticipation of separation, for what they felt was thousands of years of tradition overturned, and in joy for justice so long denied, and finally achieved. My home is across that great wide gulf; if you want to come to see me, you’ll have to go a long way to get there, and I’m hoping you will.
My home’s across the Blue Ridge mountains, and I never expect to see you anymore—across chasms that may be mountainous or psychological, political or theological. But, I have more than a tinge of sadness at the prospect of having to part, until that day when the circle will be completed in heaven, and even the unforgivable will be forgiven, through the body and blood of Jesus.
Devilish, overwhelming forces inside of me, and I think inside of each of us, sometimes strike out to bring on that separation, to widen that gulf, through saying callous and outrageous words at precisely the right time to hurt those with whom I am disagreeing, and bring on a parting. Whatever it is inside of me that would bring on that parting, something even stronger longs for conditions to change, to bring folks back together into one community, that respects consciences bound to disagree.
But we seem to be entering a time as a wider Christian body, and as a society as well, when staying together, in true relationship, is getting harder and harder to do. The fear built up around sexuality is that the traditions will be forgotten, Scripture ignored or thrown out the window entirely, and that the Body of Christ will start looking like it was donated to science for dissection. This fear is immense for some. “And I never expect you anymore” might just sound like the greatest self-fulfilling prophecy of all time in the Church of Christ.
Well, as we say back in Minnesota, ya knoaw, maybe ya have ta change yoar expectations, then. And on Friday, the ELCA not only changed its expectations, but its Vision and Expectations as well.
The Minneapolis Convention Center would seem the last place for a battle of cosmic proportions to take place, but some say that is just what happened this last week as more than 1,000 voting members from throughout the Church assembled to debate the business of the Church, primarily the social statement on sexuality and a set of resolutions that would eliminate the gay celibacy clause found in this Church’s document entitled “Vision and Expectations,” in which this now infamous phrase occurs: “Ordained ministers,” it says, “who are homosexual in their self understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.”
Well, then came Wednesday. If not thousands of people were there to see it, and media to record it, nobody would believe that just before the ELCA Churchwide assembly debated whether to adopt the Sexuality Social Statement, now about 8 years in the making, a tornado struck the very building in which the assembly was meeting, as well as the church across the street in which Goodsoil [the gay and lesbian advocacy organization that works with the Lutheran Church] would have an absolutely amazing worship service that night, where preacher Barbara Lundblad would call us to have faith, even when it seemed we were sinking in the middle of a storm.
This tornado, though a level Zero, came out of the sky like one of the Devil’s own flaming darts, as in our reading from Ephesians, and looked as though it might halt the proceedings at this crucial juncture. Not only did the proceedings continue, but the Sexuality Social Statement passed, with dead on exactly two-thirds of the vote. Many probably not only expected the roof to get ripped off of the building, but also one third of the assembly to get up and walk out.
Neither happened, yet this vote for the Social Statement preceded the truly feared vote on whether or not to allow “noncelibate” gay and lesbian pastors to serve openly and officially in the ELCA. I think everyone was expecting an even greater cataclysm to happen then.
Many expressed grave concern as to what would happen if this vote passed, particularly with respect to our worldwide Lutheran relationships and ecumenical partners. A man named Matthew from Africa, who lives in Michigan, said that if the assembly voted yes, then he and his African brother and sisters would have to leave the church. It doesn’t seem like we can expect to see each other around much longer, but can we change our expectations, perhaps a bit, and find a new relationship through reaching out in prayer and concern to those who would leave?
I don’t want Matthew to leave, nor many others who would not want me or your Pr. Jim to serve as an openly gay pastor in the ELCA. I would personally be diminished by his and his African brothers' and sisters' leaving, and the Church would be diminished as well. I want us to be able to agree to disagree, to respect the place where bound conscience honestly meets a deep sense of calling, and both can co-exist as a testament to the Christ that calls us into community with those we would not choose, but who have been chosen for us by the one who makes us One in him.
A common link between today’s reading from Ephesians 6, and the literally cataclysmic events of the past week, is this fear of separation: separation from our traditions, from God, from each other, and from the promises given us in baptism.
This reading raises the prospect of separation to a whole, new, frightening level: that of a fearful separation from God through the overwhelming assault of evil forces. “Be on your guard,” I hear the text saying, “for you have a chasm opening up between you and God that could swallow you up forever.” Only God can bridge that chasm, can swallow up the assaults of the Enemy, can fit us for this battle to come. But what really is this battle? And whence cometh this fear? Seriously, why are people so afraid? Do people not believe that God reaches out after us time and time again? That the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into old skin, and that even the dead can be raised?
Yet there is somewhere a deep fear that our Church is opening the gates to an evil assault that threatens to destroy us individually along with the whole world, that, forget about the Devil, we are tempting God to strike us down. And that’s a whole lot of fear. Let’s take a step back for a minute.
Personally speaking, I was not born and raised a Lutheran; I became one by chance, and stayed one by choice. And the reason I chose to stay Lutheran, is because this way of understanding Christianity and human nature, more than any other I know (beyond some of the hymns I sang in childhood), acknowledges the struggles of life, and the struggle against those elements of ourselves and our society that threaten to bring us down or tear us apart, individually or corporately. The Lutheran way of understanding my own dual nature, sinner and saint, is real to me, if not especially comfortable and altogether cheery.
Lutherans are Lutherans, in part, because we are honest about the existence of evil in our own flesh, blood, & souls. Evil has breached and reached the very core of our individual and communal being in this life. Even so, this statement is hard, like the statement of Jesus to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and will turn some people off from hearing the Gospel that must be preached: that even the evil that invades our world and our own bodies cannot separate us from the love of God.
This love is where the mystery of the Gospel to which Ephesians alludes comes into play.
This love is where the evil that drives our souls from peace into war, magnified on city streets, battlefields, and even sometimes in our own homes, meets the unmistakable, unmovable “no” of God, which sucks out the ultimate power of evil to grind us down.
This love is where Jesus’s body becomes really present in bread, and his blood becomes really present in wine.
This love is where the dead are raised, and the hydras of death and disease that keep popping up over and over again are finally laid to rest.
This love is where the broken circle is mended, and the false peace is brought down with the sword of honesty.
And, as our author of Ephesians said, this Gospel love, over all of the cacophony of voices that shout out “BE AFRAID!”, this love must be spoken to the ends of the Earth.
I attended the Assembly this last week as a visitor, without voice in the Assembly, or influence to affect its conversation. If there were one message that I was convinced needed to be spoken to that assemblage, and to this assemblage, and to every assemblage of two or more persons who meet in Jesus’ name, a message which Bishop Mark Hanson spoke well after the vote on approving gay clergy was passed, it is this: the Devil will assault you with flaming arrows, dreadful days, heartache and heartbreak, humiliation, with disease, dissent, disunion, and finally, death.
But through this all, beyond disagreements and resentments that might be petty or profound, beyond rupturing relationships, schismatic churches, and a huge burden of fear that only seems to mount by the day, God gives us a few sure promises:
that we will not be left alone, for God does give us community;
that God will not destroy us, for God has sent the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of that promise never to destroy us again as in the overwhelming flood;
and that we will be safe, no matter what, for we have Christ as our ultimate resting place, our shield and strength in this life, and in the life to come.
We are given each other to love in Christ’s name, with a love that looks back to the God who sent us to be here in this world. This name is not some rabbit’s foot, that will make disagreement go away if we say it nicely or even repeatedly.
But I really do believe, that, like a mother who wants to see her quarreling children get together and continue to love each other after she is gone and not able to bring them back together, God cares that we live and abide in the love that has overflowed God’s own self into creation, with the words: “And I expect to see you once again, when I bring you at last under the shadow of my wing.”
When you feel the flaming arrows coming your way, may the power of Christ be your power to withstand. When the fears that seem to dominate so many conversations scatter your thoughts and cause you grief, may the center which is Christ be your center. And may the powerful love of God, which you can expect to see again and again, be a gift to you and through you, to calm a frightened, weary world.