Be Careful What You Ask for

[1] I was called to serve Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston one year ago this April. Grace is my First Call, and I am blessed to be doing ministry with such an assembly.

[2] Grace participated in at least two of the three sexuality studies. We’ve been a Reconciling in Christ congregation for some time. Obviously, we’re decidedly liberal as a congregation when it comes to the issue of welcoming our GLBT sisters and brothers. In addition, there exists a critical mass of folks exploring ways beyond our RIC stance, working intentionally for full inclusion in the ELCA. I cannot speak for the whole congregation, of course, but I believe the Draft statement will primarily inform that active portion of our community as how to best move forward.

[3] We plan to make available hard copies of the Draft for all to read, post announcements about how to respond, and let everyone know where and when the hearings take place.

[4] I don’t think there will be any disagreements when it comes to the teaching portion of the Draft. The first section lays out well-rehearsed Lutheran themes the task force felt applicable to the topic of human sexuality, and I believe they are most appropriate. Likewise, with regard to right sexual expression, no one I know at Grace would disagree with the welcome theological shift away from ‘orders of creation’ to the concept of ‘trust’ the Draft puts forth.

[5] As a congregation we’re in line with the definitions of scriptural authority as described by the Draft. If the summary of its biblical hermeneutic is, “The Lutheran tradition, then, is open to human knowledge insofar as it encourages the good of the neighbor, protects against harm, and does not make false claims about God,” (Draft, lines 424-427) then the task force is going to have problems with churches who adhere to categories of inerrancy or canonical exegesis, but not with Grace. Grace is Seminex-born, after all-we’ve traveled those rocky roads, already.

[6] I foresee spirited conversation around the topic of cohabitation as our committed, partnered gay couples, and some of our younger committed, hetero folks, are living this way. I can also predict disagreement when it comes to the Draft’s claims of who best safeguards marriage in society (I.e. How much should the state be involved in the particularities of Christian marriage, if at all?), and the importance of family (E.g. If I were to encourage my children, or Grace’s children, to “take up Jesus’ cross” and serve as Christian peacemakers in a war torn country, would this type of discipleship be compatible with the ‘importance of family’ emphases in the Draft? Contra popular Christian notions of family values, Jesus alarmingly declares his family to be “whoever does the will of God” in Mark 3:35).

[7] The final section on ‘Social Trust and the Common Good’ provides a wonderful opportunity to teach the Two Kingdoms doctrine, and I consider it the strongest part of the Draft, reflecting Grace’s general position on full inclusion in the church. Our RIC group would certainly applaud while the Draft declares the ELCA “must also attend to the cry for just laws and just treatment within (emphasis mine) and outside the ELCA by those with varied sexual identities.” (1265-1267) Other statements with regard to gender inequities and the church being ‘visibly open to all’ would likewise be an encouragement to the majority of my congregation.

[8] What the Draft doesn’t give us is a satisfactory conclusion to some of these well-crafted statements. I believe Grace will wonder why, if all assertions made in the Social Trust section are true, the Draft refuses to take a prophetic stand on the issue of full inclusion for partnered clergy in the church and, by association, the issue of same sex blessings of committed relationships. The Draft speaks of institutions changing, but avoids facing the institution in question: the ELCA. I’m left with the impression that (paraphrasing Steve Martin) the final section ‘gets us all excited, and then goes to a yawning festival.’

[9] While I realize this is not a policy document because it hasn’t been subject to a vote by Churchwide Assembly, Grace will rightly wish to know why they shouldn’t react to it as such. The Question and Answer Fact Sheet declares that social statements “set policy for this church and guide its advocacy and work as a public church.” They also “govern church policy and state the official position of the church.” In addition, we are left with the reality that this same task force will be making specific recommendations “on changes to any policies that preclude practicing homosexual persons from the rosters of this church” at the 2009 assembly. Will our reactions either through response forms or hearings directly affect the final social statement submitted to the Church in Society program? Will they inform the 2009 recommendations? If so, how, exactly?

[10] Given what I understand of the committee’s diverse makeup, the Draft ultimately comes down where one might expect. It is, finally, as so many institutional statements are by nature, a compromise document with regard to the section on same sex blessings (and by implication, full inclusion of partnered clergy).

[11] Of course, I believe the task force acted with full integrity and care for our church. Their responsibility was to remain true to conceptions of right discipleship within this broken and beautiful world God has granted us. I thank them all for their hard work and attention to such a difficult, oftentimes embittered process. However, as we’ve witnessed after years of this discussion, the explosive issues of same-sex blessings and full inclusion defy compromise. I submit they are justice issues, and as such they call for greater leadership and courage.

[12] Contrary to most reactions from the liberal wing of the ELCA, I believe Recommendation One from the 2005 Assembly was the most radical of the three proposed. I say this with reference to my increased awareness of the equal opportunity offense of Jesus’ message. To vote so overwhelmingly that we might “live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements” reminds me of the old saying, “Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.”

[13] For Grace, the 2005 Churchwide Assembly ‘Recommendation One’ means two things: 1) We are to be honest about, and to honor, our disagreements with our Christian sisters and brothers when it comes to the issue of GLBT justice in the ELCA and, 2) in the midst of those disagreements we are led by the faith exemplified and granted to us by Jesus Christ. Grace Lutheran will find good counsel in this regard through the Draft’s following statement: “Empowered by this biblical vision (God’s promised future concretely in the present) we find the confidence to seek the good of all our neighbors even-or perhaps especially-in times of change and controversy.” (329-331)

What does this mean for Grace in our day-to-day life as a congregation? It means we might accept and own the fact we disagree with our other sisters and brothers. We might accept ourselves as disciples who feel called to take a stand, prophesying to the church with regard to something we regard as institutionally unjust. The rub is, it simultaneously implies we do all this mirroring Jesus’ offensive brand of love.

[14] If we at Grace aren’t challenged by that love it may not be our Lord’s cruciform, agape-revealed love at all. It could be some other love, perhaps, but it’s not the love of Christ. That goes for all Lutheran synods, congregations, organizations or individuals who fashion themselves as ‘progressive,’ RIC, or otherwise agitating for change in the church. Whoever we are, if we say we belong to Christ we are a “new creation,” (2 Cor 5:17) and therefore ultimately called beyond political or institutional movements for change. In other words, how we ‘fight’ is the fight itself.

[15] Currently, I’m in prayerful dialogue with a local colleague who disagrees with me on the issue of full inclusion. After our initial engagement regarding the topic I knew neither of us was going to sway one another with our theological and scriptural acrobatics; I think we both knew better, anyway. That’s not the end of the story, though. We’re planning on sharing mission activities together, and I’ll encourage my RIC group to be actively involved in that partnership. I’m praying for his congregation, for him, for myself, and for my church-and praying for our mutual brokenness to be transformed by God’s grace, hoping we might reflect a bit of that blessed promise.

[16] What the Draft certainly gets right is that we disagree. I’ll write it again for full effect: We disagree. I can no longer stomach a reality where so many of the best candidates for ordained ministry are denied that path of service in the ELCA. I cannot abide it any longer, and will work to change it as a Pastor in our beloved church. What Grace chooses to do remains to be seen. However, whether it is I, my congregation, or we together; if we honor our disagreements, offensively reaching for one another in faith and love, I pray God will show us paths of healing-while the church inevitably reforms itself again.

The Peace and Joy of Christ,

with deep thanks for this opportunity to respond.