Saturday, December 05, 2009

Saving Grace: A Letter on the Issues Our Church Faces

(For a print version of this letter, click here...)

November 30, 2009

Dear Members of Grace Lutheran Church,

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, through the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit. As we remember the day, almost four years ago, when we received the call to Grace, Mindy and I thank God for you, and for our life together as Grace Lutheran Church. For four years, we have been pursuing our mission: Grace by grace, seeking to be God’s faithful people.

Because of the decisions by the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) on the issue of Human Sexuality, some members of Grace have placed a choice before us at a special congregational meeting on Sunday, December 20 at 10 AM, whether to leave the ELCA or remain a member church of it. In order to leave the ELCA, at least 66% of voting members present at two meetings, held at least 90 days apart, need to vote to leave the ELCA.

I believe that it would be a serious mistake for Grace to leave the ELCA, and I urge you to prayerfully consider voting “No” on December 20. Let me tell you why. But, whether you agree or disagree with me, please come on Sunday, December 20th at 10 AM to vote about this important decision. Your presence there will make a difference for the future of our church.

What has Sparked the Controversy?

To review, this controversy was sparked by a series of resolutions adopted by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August. It is worth reading the actual resolutions:

Ministry Policies Resolutions Adopted

Voting members adopted resolutions proposed by the Church Council based on those contained in a “Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies.” The assembly determined on August 17 that majority votes were required on each resolution for adoption. The actions direct that changes be made to churchwide policy documents to make it possible for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders [like pastors] in the ELCA. The assembly adopted the resolutions in the following order:

Resolution 3: Adopted by a vote of 771-230 as amended: “Resolved, that in the implementation of any resolutions on ministry policies, the ELCA commit itself to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all."

Resolution 1: Adopted by a vote of 619-402: “Resolved, that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”

Resolution 2: Adopted by a vote of 559-451: “Resolved, that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.”

Resolution 4: Adopted by a vote of 667-307 as amended: This resolution called upon members to respect the bound consciences of those with whom they disagree; declared the intent to allow structured flexibility in decision-making about candidacy and the call process; eliminated the prohibition of rostered service by members in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships; recognized and committed to respect the conviction of members who believe that the ELCA should not call or roster people in committed same-gender relationships; called for development of accountability guidelines; directed that appropriate amendments to ministry policy documents be drafted and approved by the Church Council; and urged that this church continue to trust congregations, bishops, synods and others responsible for determining who should be called into public ministry.

The resolutions recognize that there is not a consensus on the issue of calling as pastors “people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” The decision further recognizes that there is more than one perspective on this issue in our churches, and that people on both sides of the issue are bound by their understanding of Scripture on this issue. Basically, the ELCA is split 60/40 on this issue, as a recent poll has also suggested. With this decision, the Churchwide Assembly recognized that reality and decided that a faithful compromise was in order.

Should This Issue Divide Christ’s Church? No.

dove18I have been your called pastor for almost four years, and in that time – at least until the very end of August this year – no one had expressed to me dissatisfaction with the ELCA; there had been no talks about leaving the ELCA. When I was called as your pastor almost exactly four years ago, no one said that there was a litmus test about homosexuality in this congregation; no one suggested that, if the ELCA made a decision about homosexuality (or any other social issue) that some disagreed with, that we’d immediately seek to cut our ties with the wider church and become an independent congregation, part of a loose association of churches united in opposition to homosexuality and separate from the wider church. No one suggested that Grace would fire our ELCA pastor and never again call an ELCA pastor to this church. At the very least, I believe we are nowhere near ready to make such a radical decision.

Remember: the decision made by Churchwide is to allow local churches the authority to make up their own minds about this issue, recognizing that we do not have a consensus – the decision does not force any congregation to call gay or lesbian pastors. It is a step in the ELCA toward greater local congregational independence. In this case, a vote to leave the ELCA would indicate that one disagreed that local churches should have that authority or independence. There are denominations with less diversity on political issues like this – the Missouri Synod, for example – but do we really want to go there? Do we want to go from being a ‘big tent’ church to being a ‘small tent’ church?

I am especially troubled by the ‘either-or’ way of thinking that some have fallen into: either the majority of the ELCA has to agree with our interpretation of the biblical law about homosexuality, or we and our congregation leave the ELCA – ASAP. Why are those the only two possibilities? Why the sudden urgency? When Martin Luther had real disagreements about core Gospel issues with the Roman Catholic Church, he did not leave the church, nor did he want to; he wanted to stay in the Catholic Church and work to reform it. Instead, Luther was kicked out. Some of us have a disagreement with the majority of ELCA members about a non-core issue of biblical interpretation of the law (more on this later), and immediately want to leave the ELCA?

Ask yourself, why is this such a big issue? Why have we fallen into either/or, win/lose thinking? Why is it either my way or the highway? Why do we need to decide this now, during the Christmas season? Is there another way to voice our disagreement and take stands for what we believe – as individuals and as a congregation – without leaving the ELCA? Why not? Why are we being forced to vote on the most extreme response possible, when we haven’t even had time to prayerfully consider other options?

On December 20th, we will vote on whether to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With the either/or, all-or-nothing decision placed before us on December 20, we all lose either way. If we don’t find a compromise, a creative, faithful way to live together despite our disagreements, then we will lose members either way. Do married couples divorce when they disagree over who to vote for? Do families split over political disagreements? Healthy couples and healthy families don’t.

In the same way, healthy congregations don’t split over disagreements about the biblical law – especially, as we shall see later, when those disagreements are not on core biblical issues of love, justice, and the Gospel. Right now, everyone seems to be thinking “win / lose”: ‘either I get my way, or I leave.’ ‘Either I win and you lose, or you win and I lose.’ That’s really ‘lose / lose’ thinking, because we all lose in the end when the body of Christ is split, when people divorce their church. How can we start thinking “win / win” instead? How can we respect the different opinions that our brothers and sisters in Christ have? How can we find a solution we all can live with? How can we find a middle ground? If that’s not possible, then ask, Why? What’s the hang up? Does it have anything to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or is it part of society’s culture wars?

We are approaching a crossroads. We either continue down the road we’ve been traveling the last four years, or we take a sharp turn and go in a very different direction. We have welcomed over 50 new members to Grace in 2009 alone. I believe we’re going down the right road now. There’s no need to change course on December 20th. For those who have said that they will leave Grace if Grace remains in the ELCA, I pray they will reconsider if the vote fails. This is our church, no matter what the Churchwide Assembly decided. I sincerely pray that we can continue to serve God together, side by side, as Grace Lutheran Church.

One statistic from our recent survey needs to be lifted up: of the about 140 confirmed members who responded, 35 said they would leave Grace if Grace remains in the ELCA, while 23 said they’d leave Grace if Grace leaves the ELCA. If we continue in this ‘win / lose’ way of thinking, either way we lose – and I believe that the survey underestimates the number who would end up leaving if we leave the ELCA, because I believe that many people misunderstood the effects of leaving the ELCA. I believe that we will particularly lose younger members and families.

The ELCA or the LCMC?

What we are apparently being asked to do on December 20, by those who have requested the special meeting, is to leave the ELCA and become an independent congregation, joining Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), a loose association of independent Lutheran churches. This is a huge decision for us to make in a short period of time: the most radical change in Grace’s 45 year history.

This congregation was founded as an outreach congregation on Detroit Lakes’ north side, with financial help and assistance from the wider church (at that time, the ALC), and First Lutheran. For the whole history of our congregation, we have been a part of a broad, ecumenical, Christian church, growing in unity. As a congregation of the ELCA, we are joined with over 10,000 ELCA congregations, and over 67 million Lutherans in the Lutheran World Federation. We are united with 270 congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA (including many in the DL area), with the faithful, spiritual leadership of Bishop Larry Wohlrabe and his staff, who was elected by our annual Synod Assembly.

As part of the ELCA, we are connected with:

· 204 new congregations being started this year alone;

· 260 missionaries in 50 countries, focused on training local leaders for mission;

· ministry through local partners in 90 countries;

· 8 seminaries training pastors and church leaders;

· 28 colleges and universities, including Concordia;

· 187 campus ministries, including MSUM;

· 267 Lutheran elementary schools, K-8;

· 147 outdoor Christian camping ministries, including Pathways and Camp Emmaus;

· Lutheran Social Services, the largest social service organization in the US;

· Lutheran Disaster Response and Lutheran World Relief, two of the most effective relief agencies in the world (with lower overhead costs than World Vision, for example – World Vision spends 13% of the money it takes in on overhead, while Lutheran World Relief spends 9% on overhead);

· Lutheran Church Women;

· Augsburg Press, the foremost Lutheran publisher in the English language;

· and more.

As members of the ELCA, we are in full communion with the United Methodist Church, The Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and more – which means we share in ministry and mission, and could call a pastor from one of those unite_2623denominations if needed. We share with the Roman Catholic Church in partial unity through the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Just two years ago, Grace hosted leaders from the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India, our synod’s sister church – which has 2,000,000 families in 5,000 churches!

We lose all of those connections if we join the LCMC. The LCMC is a loose association of about 200 independent churches spread throughout the US. They do not have a seminary to train leaders: instead, they use other denominations’ seminaries –mostly Baptist seminaries. I am not putting down Baptist seminaries – I have friends who teach at Bethel – but they are definitely not Lutheran; is that the kind of pastoral leadership we want at Grace?

If we joined the LCMC, we would cease being a part of an ecumenical, interconnected, accountable church denomination, and we would basically be on our own. If we had a conflict in the future, we’d be on our own. When it comes time to search for a new pastor, we’d be on our own – if you look at the LCMC website (www.lcmc.net), there are only about 30 LCMC pastors – nationwide – seeking a call. If one of them is not a good fit for Grace, as far as I can see, there would be nowhere else to turn. The pastoral call process is a real unknown in the LCMC, since it is only 10 years old, and most of the LCMC churches have not yet had to look for a new pastor. One thing is certain: the congregation would be completely on its own throughout the process, including doing background and credential checks on all prospective pastors.

Some of us attended the LCMC informational meeting on November 11 with Pastor Dale Wolff. Pastor Wolff gave a good presentation, and indeed, I agree with much of what he said: much of what he said that the LCMC is doing, we are already doing in the ELCA and in our congregation. The LCMC has a yearly meeting of representatives of all its congregations; as a small denomination that is easy to do – we have the same thing in our local Synod every year, at the Synod Assembly each spring. Obviously, with over 10,000 congregations, the ELCA as a whole cannot have a functional meeting every year with representatives from every congregation – we’d fill the Metrodome – it would be expensive, and too big to have functional meetings. That is why we send representatives from each conference to Churchwide Assemblies. It is representative democracy, which is how we make decisions in a large organization. One does not have to agree with every decision the Churchwide Assembly makes, but each Assembly is filled with prayer, worship, and lots of conversation to seek God’s guidance for each decision they make.

If the LCMC continues to grow, they will look more and more like a denomination, with local and national structures, like synods – Pastor Wolff talked about forming a local district around this area – and a national structure of some sort. I believe we in the ELCA have much to learn from the flexible organizing principles of groups like the LCMC, but I do not believe we need to join them in order to focus on our mission of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ: that is what we’ve been doing (and how we’ve been growing) all along.

One thing needs to be said: it is my understanding that part of the plan of some who wish Grace to leave the ELCA and join LCMC is this: once Grace leaves the ELCA, those people in other congregations around Detroit Lakes who disagreed with the Churchwide decision may leave their congregations and join Grace; thus Grace would be the only LCMC church in Detroit Lakes. This, I surmise, is because some of the rural congregations are too small to go it alone as LCMC congregations, and First and Trinity are too large to gather a 2/3 majority to leave the ELCA (and First has a larger mortgage than Grace!).

A few points need to be made about this plan (if it is a plan – I would love to be corrected if it is not). First, planning to attract members from other churches is called, in shepherds’ language, sheep stealing; it does nothing for the church of Jesus Christ as a whole, it just moves people around to different congregations and can cause ill will in the process; I see such a plan as unethical. Second, we know that leaving the ELCA will cause an exodus of church members out of Grace (especially younger members); if this plan works, and new, likeminded (anti-ELCA) individuals join Grace, this will certainly transform this church family in a big way, becoming less diverse in social/cultural views. As members of Grace, we need to decide if this is really the kind of growth we want. Third, if this is the plan, it needs to be presented plainly and openly.

Leaving one denomination for another denomination is seldom the right solution; soon disagreements with the majority of that denomination will arise about something else. What do we do then? Gay pastors will always be few and far between (especially in NW Minnesota), and local congregations will always be able to choose their own pastors. This decision by the Churchwide Assembly does not do anything to Grace Lutheran Church unless we want it to – and the more we choose to let it affect us and our mission, the more it will.

It is similar to the earlier decision for full communion with the Episcopal Church, Called to Common Mission (Opposition to Called to Common Mission was the original reason why the LCMC was started): it only affects Lutheran churches that choose to call a joint pastor with an Episcopal Church, or who choose to call an Episcopal pastor. In terms of the ordination of pastors, ELCA pastoral candidates still have the right to be ordained by a local pastor rather than by a bishop – full communion with the Episcopal Church does not mean that we have to accept the historic episcopate as anything more than a symbol of Christian unity, which is how I see it. When I was ordained, for example, I asked the bishop to be there at our church in Eveleth and preach at the service. I was ordained, and prayed for by the bishop, my pastor, members of the church, and family members. Having the bishop present was simply a visible sign of our unity in Christ with the wider church. Ask yourselves, what negative effect has Called to Common Mission had at Grace? How is this situation going to be any different?

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Why Do We Understand the Bible Differently?

Last but not least, the Bible. I am by nature and choice a uniter, not a divider, and I stand strong in stating that this issue should not be church dividing. I know that some disagree, and that is anyone’s right; that is what respecting one another’s bound conscience is about, and I respect others’ beliefs about this. Please know this. I believe that you are motivated by the best of intentions: you want to keep the church from what you see as a grave error, in not calling sin acts which you see as sin. You are motivated by your understanding of the Bible.

But, know this about me as well. Here I stand: I believe that, in the long run, this issue will be like earlier church controversies such as the debate about the ordination of women: that debate was not settled on purely biblical grounds. We probably all had friends or family on all sides of that issue in the past. People on both sides of that issue had biblically-based, heartfelt beliefs; the issue was resolved over time using Scripture and sound reason, and we moved on; those who divided themselves from the wider church because of that disagreement were, in the end, in the wrong. It is often only in retrospect that the issues are clear.

Everyone agreed in the middle of the 20th century that some Bible verses say that women should be silent in church, should be subordinate to their husbands, should cover their head, and even should not cut their hair short (see 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 for one example of those beliefs); Christians disagreed about how those passages apply to women. Those verses are ‘black and white,’ but we rightly believe that they are commandments for another time and another people. Perhaps they were a way to keep the peace in the early church in the context of a very sexist Roman society; but to simply apply them to us in our time would, in fact, be wrong.

We do that with every commandment in the Bible: we ask how it applies to ourselves and to others, and we work to apply it faithfully. We see this even in Bible passages from the Gospels: how many of us have taken Jesus’ commandment to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21) literally and fully? Probably none of us, but that does not mean that we don’t take Jesus’ words seriously and struggle to apply them faithfully. It is the same with Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage (Mark 10:1-12). When Jesus says plainly, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:39), how do we apply that to police officers or soldiers under attack? Is it really black and white? We don’t water Jesus’ words down, but we also don’t misapply Jesus’ words to judge and condemn other people wrongly.

There is no ‘proof text’ that the advocates of the change found in the Bible, however, that simply says ‘Thumbs up to homosexuality.’ Analogously to the earlier debate about the place of women in the church, it was always easier to argue against change from Scripture, but the Bible has a clear trajectory of freedom, justice, and equality, which usually becomes clear later – how gays and lesbians fit into this is also a matter of debate. It is worth noting, however, that what Christian gays and lesbians are advocating for in our society today is the right to enter into legal relationships of lifelong faithfulness – not promiscuity or abuse; sometimes, they just want the right to be at their partner’s side at their hospital bed.

One question we always have to ask about any biblical law is this: how does this law apply to us and to others today? In fact, we do this all the time. As Timothy Wengert has noted, Martin Luther confronted people in his day “who argued that Old Testament commandments, including those regarding the Sabbath and tithing, must be rigorously applied to Christians.”[1] Here is how Luther responded:

One must deal cleanly with the Scriptures. From the very beginning the word has come to us in various ways. It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has spoken it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us. That makes all the difference between night and day. … The word in Scripture is of two kinds: the first does not pertain or apply to me, the... other kind does. … The false prophets pitch in and say, “Dear people, this is the word of God.” This is true; we cannot deny it. But we are not “the people.” (LW 35: 170.)

Luther did not disagree that some laws (like worshiping only on Saturday, the literal Sabbath) are in the Bible; what he disagreed with was how those laws apply to the church of his day. In fact, for example, hundreds of years ahead of his time, Luther was open to the possibility of the ordination of women as pastors; he just did not think his contemporary culture was ready for it. When Martin Luther was asked by the Roman Catholic authorities to recant (take back) the things he had written and taught about the gospel of Jesus Christ, he responded, “Unless it can be proved through scripture and sound reason, I will not and cannot recant.” We do not use just Scripture, because Scripture says many things; we also need sound reason guided by the Holy Spirit and a consistent focus on the good news of salvation in Christ. The Bible is always translated and read by imperfect, limited people like me and you; we are not God, so none of us has a God’s-eye view of Scripture. One key for our eph413understanding of the law is this: Jesus summed up God’s law as love for God and for one’s neighbor. When we look at any biblical law, we ask, “How does following this commandment enhance love for God and neighbor?”[2]

Human sexuality is a big issue, which brings forth strong, gut level reactions from many people. We all need to step back, cool off, and decide to take the time to work this out. Two adult forums are not enough –we certainly need more conversation, and more Bible study together – how about a few years’ worth?

All of us come to this issue from different perspectives, and that shapes how we read and understand and apply the Bible passages that we will examine below. It is a mistake to claim that one’s perspective is the only biblical one, and that everyone else’s perspective is mere human opinion – as if one’s own opinion is divine, or as if one just reads the Bible, while people one disagrees with interpret it. In fact, we all do both. That is why people in this area often read the Bible on these issues differently than people in other parts of the country or the world. Of course, I believe in what I believe, and so do you; if we disagree, then we disagree. Only Scripture and sound reason can bridge that gap, and perhaps not even then: we may have to agree to disagree, if the disagreement does not involve the good news of Jesus Christ. It is up to each of us to decide if this disagreement in our church (over what is one narrow issue: whether Christian gays and lesbians in lifelong committed relationships have to be celibate or not) is worth dividing the church over. I do not expect to change minds or change how everyone sees this issue, but I hope that we will try to see it from another perspective, see that there is more than just one’s own perspective – and see that this issue ought not to divide our congregation.

I believe strongly in holding a consistent, high standard of sexual morality for all people. I believe that all the biblical texts about sexuality apply to all of us, and call all of us to be absolutely faithful to our life partner, our church and our community. There is no room for adultery, there is no room for promiscuity, there is no room for leaving one’s spouse for someone else, there is no room for any kind of abuse of anyone at any time, there is no room for pornography. We all agree with this.

Where people in the ELCA in good conscience disagree is this: Should gays or lesbians who are in lifelong, committed, faithful relationships be abstinent or not? We all take seriously those passages that condemn some kinds of homosexual activity – as seriously as we take passages that condemn some kinds of heterosexual activity – which are often the same passages!

For a growing segment of our population and our churches, Christians in good conscience see verses that condemn homosexual activity in the same way they view verses that condemn some heterosexual activity – not as condemning every homosexual, but as condemning abusive or promiscuous behaviors. It is not that suddenly ‘anything goes,’ but more people are recognizing several points, which I will cover in some detail:

1. First of all, for some people, being homosexual is not a ‘choice,’ anymore than being heterosexual is a choice. Did you choose to be heterosexual? Or, is it naturally how you are? I know I had my first ‘crush’ on a girl (that I can remember) when I was in first grade. I did not ‘catch’ it from anyone; I wasn’t taught it. It is my nature. There is more and more evidence that it is the same with most homosexuals – they are not mentally ill or morally deficient; homosexuality is simply part of who they are. The question for everyone is: how do we live out our sexuality faithfully and purely?

2. Second, more and more people in the ELCA recognize that the verses that condemn male prostitutes and male sexual abusers and rapists (like Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) do not condemn most gays and lesbians today, who are often good, faithful people like you and me. ‘Male sex abusers’ is a good translation of the word (arsenokoitoi) sometimes translated as ‘sodomites’ in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10. Rich Roman men (the ‘male sex abusers’) abused young male slaves (‘male prostitutes’); abuse is evil and sinful – we name sin for what it is – but this verse does not accurately describe Christian gays and lesbians who are committed to lifelong, faithful, monogamous relationships. We in the ELCA do not disagree that Paul is condemning some homosexual activity; we disagree with whether these verses apply to all homosexual relationships all the time, including lifelong, monogamous, faithful, loving relationships. We don’t condemn all heterosexual relationships because of verses like 1 Corinthians 6:9 that condemn sinful heterosexual activity; why use a double standard with homosexuals? That is a question more and more Christians are asking.

The men of Sodom in Genesis 19 were inhospitable rapists, who ignored the poor and needy (see Ezekiel 16:48-49 for the biblical explanation of why Sodom was destroyed). Any kind of abuse is wrong, always. The men of Sodom were attempting to assault and rape foreign visitors to their town: the ultimate act of inhospitality. Read Genesis 19, and ask how that chapter applies to decent, Christian gays and lesbians who simply want to live quietly and lovingly in lifelong, monogamous, faithful relationships. Frankly, the chapter has a lot more to say about how we ought to treat immigrants than about sexual orientation. See Judges 19:22-30, for another graphic (and terrible – this is for adults only) example of inhospitality, and see that such evil acts have little to do with homosexuality and a lot to do with violence toward outsiders.

3. Third, there is a growing conviction among many people of faith that the strongest verses about homosexuality, in Romans 1:18-2:5, do not accurately describe the Christian gays and lesbians who are in faithful, lifelong relationships. Romans 1 includes words like these: ‘futile in their thinking,’ ‘senseless minds,’ ‘fools,’ ‘lusts’ and ‘degrading passions,’ ‘debased minds,’ filled with ‘wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.’

If you know any gays or lesbians, do all these words accurately describe them? Would we call them all of those terrible things that Paul lists? Is that an accurate judgment? Aside from the fact that they are sinners just like us, and so those words apply to them as much as they do to us, those words, in fact, do not describe gays and lesbians as a whole. It’s not that we throw out or disbelieve these texts, but we should not apply them indiscriminately to a whole class of people: the community of gays and lesbians.

It is not the case that the Bible is unclear: what is often unclear is our view of the Bible, which can be clouded by our own social, political, and economic prejudices, especially when we are judging other people’s actions (and not our own). When we read the list of evil that Paul speaks of in Romans 1, we fully agree with condemning those kinds of actions and thoughts; we disagree about whether it is appropriate to judge every member of the gay and lesbian community by those actions and thoughts.

4. Fourth, the very point of Paul’s words in Romans 1:18-2:5 is to turn the tables on those who would judge and say: you are the same: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (Romans 2:1). Read Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 and reflect on them. Again, that does not mean that we do not judge evil behavior: there is a difference of opinion about what behavior is, in fact, evil, and more and more people are judging that gays and lesbians in lifelong, faithful relationships are no more evil than heterosexual married couples. Remember Paul’s words: “in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

5. Fifth, if one wants to lift up the two verses in Leviticus that call homosexual activity an ‘abomination’ (18:22 and 20:13), there are a lot of other Old Testament laws that we’ll have to start applying to ourselves. When the Old Testament law calls something an ‘abomination,’ it either has to do with ritual or ethical purity, especially in regards to making animal sacrifices in the temple: in each case, we have to ask if and how the commands apply to us and others today. Remember Luther and the law. Also, remember that Jesus summarizes God’s law as: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. Remember also Jesus’ words: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:2). If we want to judge someone by the letter of the biblical law, we will be judged by the letter of that law, too. How are we doing at tithing, giving 10% of our income to God? (see Malachi 3:10, and many other verses). Do we want to start stoning rebellious children? (Deuteronomy 21:18) Do we really want to go there? Is that really the point of the Christian life? That that is not, in fact, the right way to live in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When is the last time we studied the Old Testament law, from Exodus through Deuteronomy, other than those two verses? Do we want to start applying it all, literally? Then why those two verses? No, we do not throw out the law – for goodness sake, we spent eight weeks this summer learning about the Ten Commandments – but we do have to look at it through the law of love, in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through sound reason and prayerful discernment in the body of Christ.

Conclusion

I think the appropriate question to ask is not, do we all agree on this issue? but, can we agree to disagree, and get on with the mission of the church? If you look back in history, you will find Lutheran denominations that split off over one or another of divisive issues in the past – slavery, the ordination of women, full communion with the Episcopal Church, and now this issue of homosexuality.

I personally will not abandon the wider church over this issue – you called an ELCA pastor, and that is who I am – but I am committed to being fair, open, and loving with all members of Grace as we wrestle with these issues. I pray that we do not sever our ties with the ELCA over this issue, but commit to continue walking together as a church that keeps the conversation going between people who disagree about social issues and issues of how to apply God’s law in the Bible. I pray that we continue to be a welcoming church, growing in grace, growing in fellowship, growing in discipleship and disciples, growing in love for God and one another as Grace by grace, we seek to be God’s faithful people by sharing Christ with our neighbors. Again, whether you agree or disagree with me, please come on Sunday, December 20th at 10:00 AM to discuss and vote about this important decision.

God's Work. Our Hands.

Pastor Eric's Signature

Pastor Eric Lemonholm

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Law and Gospel Reflections

Law and Gospel Reflections

Eric Lemonholm


A Reflection Paper

June 24, 2009

This is difficult. Reflecting on the course, Preaching Law and Gospel with Dr. Dirk Lange, is a little like reflecting on a journey one has just begun. The law and gospel dialectic is fundamental theology; it’s the language of faith, the threat to existence and the promise of salvation. It’s dying and rising. It’s being buried with Christ in baptism and rising with Christ. It’s the theology of the cross, looking at things as they really are, seeing God through suffering and the cross (Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation)[1]. It’s a cruciform existence, a life of suffering love for the other. It’s discipleship, following the One who is our Savior into the life of the world. It’s Bonhoeffer’s notions of “religionless Christianity” and the Christian life as two things: “prayer and righteous action.”[2] It’s divine wrath and divine mercy, God’s alien and God’s proper work, judgment and grace, sinner and saint.[3]

The dialectic of Law and Gospel appears in the “theological substructure of the sermon,” according to Herman Stuempfle, Jr.’s reading of Heinrich Ott, consisting of three elements which correspond to “the ‘structural phases’ of the life of faith”:

In the first phase we are brought to the realization that our situation before God is one of “lostness.” Then through the Word of Jesus’ redemptive work we experience, in the midst of our lost situation, an emancipating encounter with God. Finally, out of this encounter there issues a radical reorientation of our life towards new ends.[4]

It’s essential to remember, however, that this theological substructure is not the outline of every sermon, nor is this substructure a framework that one woodenly overlays on the biblical text – as if one were to read every text through the lens of a narrow understanding of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the context of preaching, there is no single definition of either Law or Gospel, and there is no single interpretation for any particular text discerning what is Law and what is Gospel in the text. In the word of Scripture, God encounters us, where we are, with both Law and Gospel: what I discern and preach as Law and Gospel for my congregational context will not be the same as another sermon for another time, place, and people; one cannot fully predict or control how God will speak Law and Gospel to someone through the sermon. Gospel can function as Law, Law can function as Gospel; both can be intermixed in any text or any sermon, and what one person hears as Law another will hear as Gospel.

Stuempfle discerns two different forms of the Law: Law as Hammer of Judgment, and Law as Mirror of Existence. The Hammer of Judgment targets the conscience with accusations of guilt, to hold the listeners accountable for our sin; the Mirror of Existence targets consciousness with descriptions of our “anxiety, finitude, alienation, doubt, despair,” etc., to bring our broken existence to awareness.[5] Thinking of the two uses of the Law – as Torah teaching to enable human flourishing and as Hammer or Mirror to reveal our need for a Savior – the Law has both positive and (from a human perspective) negative functions. This side of the Kingdom of God in its fullness, we will continue to need both uses of the Law.

One does not end with the Law, however. The Law alone is bad news. The specific Law or “No!” preached will be correlated with a specific form of Gospel or God’s “Yes!”[6] The Hammer of Judgment will be answered by “the Gift of Forgiveness;” the Mirror of Existence will be answered by the Gospel as “Antiphon to Existence,” for example, alienation answered by reconciliation, anxiety by certitude, despair by hope, transiency by homecoming.[7] While one can, in a general sense, describe the Good News of God’s promise of salvation through Christ in Scripture, how that Good News is specifically given voice in the sermon cannot be predicted before the process of sermon preparation, because the specific Gospel word will be given flesh by the text of Scripture, the congregational context, and the preacher’s own life with both the text and the context – swinging between the Bible and the community of faith, between the Gospel and the Law, between life and death.

A tension, which arose even in Paul’s day, is how the call to obedience fits into this Law/Gospel dialectic. Should we fall into the ditch of antinomianism? “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). If God freely forgives sin, why not sin more, so God can forgive more? On the other side, should we fall into the ditch of legalism, and place the burden of the Law on the backs of the people as a prerequisite for grace? The answer is that we struggle to walk the narrow path. In answer to antinomianism, we recognize the two legitimate uses of the Law: to guide our path and to reveal our fallenness, and thus our need for Christ. In answer to legalism, we recognize that salvation is God’s work, already accomplished for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The Gospel, is not earned, but is a gift from God; it’s all grace. Our life of faith is a life of gratitude, thanksgiving in response to what God has done for us. For example, as Christians we follow the Ten Commandments, neither in the fear that, when we fail to keep them, we will be damned; nor in a false pride that deceives ourselves into thinking that we are, in fact, following them fully and paying our own way to salvation. Rather, we follow the Ten Commandments freely, in a spirit of gratitude for God’s gift of grace, knowing that we will fall down along the way, go astray, and repent, and that God has promised to forgive us, as the loving parent forgave the prodigal child (Luke 15).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quote for the Day

Quote for the day from French and Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ book Entre Nous, pp. 99-100. It’s dense reading; spend some time with it:

The portion of humanity that, from Sarajevo to Cambodia, witnessed a host of cruelties in the course of a century in which its Europe, with its “human sciences,” seemed to have fully explored its subject – the humanity that, during all these horrors, breathed – already or still – the smoke from the ovens of the “final solution” crematoria where theodicy abruptly appeared impossible – will it, in indifference, abandon the world to useless suffering, leaving it to the political fatality – or drifting – of blind forces that inflict misfortune on the weak and conquered, while sparing the conquerors, with whom the shrewd are not slow to align themselves?

Or, incapable of adhering to an order – or a disorder – that it continues to think diabolical, must not humanity now, in a faith more difficult than before, in a faith without theodicy, continue to live out Sacred History; a history that now demands even more from the resources of the I in each one of us, and from its suffering inspired by the suffering of the other, from its compassion which is a non-useless suffering (or love), which is not longer suffering “for nothing,” and immediately has meaning?

At the end of the twentieth century and after the useless and unjustifiable pain which is exposed and displayed therein without any shadow of a consoling theodicy, are we not all committed – like the Jewish people to their faithfulness—to the second term of this alternative? This is a new modality in the faith of today, and even in our moral certitudes; a modality most essential to the modernity that is dawning.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Five Minute Sermon on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Here's a project I did here at Luther Seminary this week: a sermon for my preaching class on Isaiah 1.
Eric Lemonholm, June 12, 2009


Vision.
Isaiah has a vision – or, rather, he sees a vision.
The vision is not his own.
It’s a vision from God.
He’s possessed by it.
His life is not his own.
It would have been so much easier if Isaiah had not seen his nation through God’s eyes.
But once he did,
once that vision possessed him,
once the live coal touched his lips,
once he responded to God, “Here am I; send me!”
how could he keep from speaking the word?
How could Isaiah not testify to the peril that Judah was blindly approaching?
They were about to do a liturgical dance off a cliff; how could he not warn them?

If you’ve ever been to a Lutheran Synod Assembly, you may have noticed that we Lutherans can’t seem to worship together without including every possible liturgical dialogue and prayer and hymn in the service.


We need a pipe organ, we need robes. We need our Lamb of God’s and our Holy Holy Holy’s.
The Lord knows it’s not real worship without a little Gregorian chant.


For those of us who are not big into the minutiae of practically perfect worship, this passage may tempt us to gloat.


Look – even God is getting bored of all our callings of convocation.
Our solemn assemblies are burdensome even to God.

I know a young pastor who said to me earlier this year, “I’m tired of planning events that I wouldn’t attend if I didn’t have to.”
How often is our worship like that?
Would you attend your church if you weren’t the pastor?

But of course, this is not what Isaiah is talking about.
Maybe we are boring God with our uncreative, spiritless, monotone worship
– but that’s a sermon for another text.

Isaiah’s talking about blood.
Blood on our hands.
We’re like Lady Macbeth, but we don’t even know it.

If God’s eyes are closed to our worship,
if God’s ears are closed to our prayers,
it’s because of the blood on our hands,
blood we don’t even see.

Wake up, people!
Open your eyes!
Is the message of the prophets dead?
Does it no longer apply?


If Isaiah did this in 8th century BC Judah, then how are we to do what he did in America in 2009?
And if we are not doing it, then what in the world are we doing?

Take a look sometime at how much of the Bible is devoted to the Hebrew prophets.
How much of our preaching is centered on their message?

Here the word of the Lord:

16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, 17learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.


This isn’t just one of seven verses in the Bible that deal with how we treat the poor. It’s one of over 3,000.
Are you following the Torah, God’s teaching?
The easiest way to find out is to ask how you treat the poor, the oppressed, the alien, the orphan, the widow, the imprisoned.
People on the edge.
People at risk.

Are they just collateral damage of our shock and awe existence?
During the good times, we cut taxes for the rich.
During the bad times, we cut help for the poor.
When we kill people, or let them die, corporately, as a society, it just doesn’t seem so bad as if we were doing it on our own.
But what’s the difference?


When Luke Skywalker confronted the dark side, he saw his own face.
We are the dark side of our society and world.
We are bin Laden.
We are terrorism.
We are extraordinary rendition.
We are torture, of which the majority of American Christians approve.
We are children working in sweatshops and dying in factories and mines.
We are global warming and the killing of our world.
We are the oppression in oil rich countries fueled by our demand.
We are whatever damage was done to people, animals, and the world for the sake of our consumption, convenience, and security.
As much as we try to separate ourselves from the truth of our corporate and individual actions, the blood is on our hands.
Can you see it? Will you help your people see it?


-----------------------


I tell you, a ‘salad’ or ‘French’ ending to this sermon is a temptation.
‘Let us’ do justice.
‘May we’ practice righteousness.
We’ve just heard the Law: Now let us and may we follow it! Amen!

But, we haven’t yet heard the Gospel, the good news.
We are the defendants.
God the Prosecutor has just made a damning case against us.
Suddenly God the Judge stands up, and says,

Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:


At this point, I expect God to heap more evidence on us.
But instead, we hear this:


though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are
red like crimson, they shall become like wool.


God has become our Advocate, our Defender.
We can’t wash the blood off our hands.
The stains run too deep.
There will always be more.

But we do have an Advocate, in whom, by whom, and through whom our sins are washed away, forgiven.
We are given a clean slate.
Our God wants us to “eat the good of the land.”
Our God wants us to flourish, and has given us instruction, Torah, to help us flourish.
Are you “willing and obedient”?
Will you
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Will you help your people see ourselves as God sees us, and live as God wants us to live?
Will you teach both Law and Gospel?
Will you help them see that the Law is indeed “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb”? (Psalm 19)
Will you show them how, as a forgiven people of God, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God? (Micah 6:8)

It’s time to pray. God of Torah, God of Evangel, let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, go forth and spread your vision of justice and righteousness, for the flourishing of all your creatures. Amen.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Snake Sin and Entitlement

Here are my two latest sermons (I'm finally coming up with sermon titles of sorts):

2009-3-22 Snake Sin

2009-3-25 The Entitlement Mentality

Thursday, March 19, 2009