1 pastor’s thoughts about churchwide assembly decisions

Published 11:06 am Friday, February 26, 2010

The thoughts I have to offer you in this article are born of pain and humility. I don’t have all the answers, but can only point us to the Christ who invites us to live in faith, hope and love in the questions and tensions of life.

I have observed something. Many Lutherans are convinced with all of their hearts and souls and minds that the decision made by the 2009 Churchwide Assembly (to allow congregations who want to to call partnered gay and lesbian pastors) was the right one. These Lutherans point to the fact that slave owners used scripture to justify slavery. They point to the Apostle Paul’s directions that women are to be silent in the church, and they remind people how long women’s voices were stifled by a long line of Christian religious leaders who quoted Paul. These Lutherans point out that all of the Jewish patriarchs had multiple wives. Women were property in the biblical world, and any man who wanted to divorce his wife could do so at any time without explanation. These Lutherans point out that Biblical family values, which include polygamy and concubinage, leave much to be desired.

Everything they say is historically accurate. Still, I think that they’re missing the point that those who talk about returning to biblical family values are trying to make. What many of the people I know mean when they say they long to go “back to the Bible” is that they don’t want to see their 10-year old granddaughters decked out in eye shadow, miniskirts and shirts that show their belly buttons. They don’t want to see Janet Jackson’s breast fall out of her too-small shirt while they watch the Super Bowl. They don’t want to have to explain what Viagra is to their 3-year-old because there are 10 commercials for it during every football game. They don’t want to explain to their teenage children why they should wait to have sex when no one else is. They don’t want their children to live with a partner until they’re married.

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What are Christian family values? The ELCA attempted to address that question in a comprehensive study on human sexuality. And if that statement were printed in this article, I believe most of you reading it would agree with most of what was said. With the possible exception of the two pages that deal with homosexuality.

But we haven’t united around what we agree about in the church. Sadly, we have demonized each other. One group calls the other “rigid fundamentalists.” They, in turn, are called “apostate heretics.” Beyond the names we call each other is a common desire to help our children deal with sexuality in a complex and changing world. We have much common ground.

The thoughts in this article are taken from a sermon that I preached last week, a sermon I felt pushed into writing because there are some in my parish who are struggling mightily with our church’s decision.

The Bible that I have at home is more than 2,000 pages long. The six passages in it that pertain directly to homosexuality would, if you put them together, take up no more than half of one of those pages. Jesus himself never spoke about homosexuality.

The first two passages in the Bible that refer to homosexuality are from the book of Leviticus. In my Bible at home, Leviticus has about 50 pages in it. Amongst those 50 pages there is a law that requires parents to stone their children to death if they talk back. Wearing clothing made of linen and cotton blended together is against the law. There are a large number of rules regarding animal sacrifice. After a great deal of conflict, the early Christians determined that salvation was not found by following these laws. The logical question is: can we pick and choose to take the verses from Leviticus that refer to homosexuality as binding commandments while disregarding the vast majority of the rest of them?

Next, Sodom and Gomorrah. Imagine that you had never heard the story before, and let me tell it to you. A gang of men surround the house of a man who has taken two strangers in for the night. They pound on the door and tell him to send the strangers out so that they can rape them. The man says, “No, take my daughters instead.” They refuse to be mollified by the promise of raping and beating the young girls, and the angels of God destroy the city.

Homosexual sex is one aspect of this account. Violence and rape, heterosexual and homosexual because Sodom and Gomorrah were known for both, are the weightier issues. The blood of the innocent had called out to God from Sodom and Gomorrah, and prompted him to destroy the city. It was the blood of those whom they had killed after they abused them sexually, male and female.

In both First Corinthians 6:9 and First Timothy 1:9, Paul states that people who commit homosexual acts will not inherit the kingdom of God. It is quite straightforward. To describe the inhumane sexual practices of the people Paul was writing to would be both time-consuming and quite unsettling. Paul’s understanding of sexuality was shaped by his time, as is ours. Suffice it to say that Paul was not writing to a gay and lesbian community who wanted to come to worship together with their partners and have their lifelong relationships blessed by the church. Many scholars believe that we are not comparing apples to apples when we take Paul’s words and apply them to their situation.

In Romans 1:26-27, Paul argues that exchanging natural God-given passions (which he identifies as heterosexual) for unnatural human desires (which he identifies as homosexual) is the archetype of sin. As someone who struggles so deeply with sin myself, I appreciate Paul’s statement that when I sin, I am choosing something that I think will be better than what God has for me. I can only offer you the perspective others have shared with me: Gays and lesbians say that homosexuality is natural for them. They say it is the way God made them, and that they cannot change it. And, some add, God has not changed it despite their repeated prayers. Personally, knowing that my heterosexual orientation is innate, I have a hard time telling someone else that their sexual orientation is not. Having observed the discrimination gays and lesbians receive, I also have a hard time comprehending why someone would choose to be homosexual.

I’m not advocating a position. I’m only sharing this with you because I want people to understand what I suspect happened in August. And perhaps something else happened, too. Perhaps some other verses of scripture were taken into account, from the other 1,999 pages of the Bible. Probably Matthew 7:12 (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).

I think that what most ELCA church members wonder is, what will our congregation do with regard to blessing homosexual unions and calling gay pastors? According to the churchwide assembly’s decision, each congregation will do whatever it chooses to do. Whatever they believe is the right thing for their congregation to do. Each congregation has the right, and the responsibility, to decide for themselves what course they will take.

These are challenging days for us as a church and a denomination. But we are a people who were born three days after the death of our savior. We are a people who know you can’t make an end run around suffering, but you only get resurrection after a cross. These days tend to bring out the worst in us. But as for my parish: Do you know when we are at our best? It is when we sing “Jesus Loves Me” during the guitar service on Sunday School Sunday, or when we watch the Sunday school students perform in a skit and they bring the house down with laughter. It’s when we make soup and bake pie on a sleety November evening at Round Prairie, and when we gather down in the basement at Lunder when it’s 100 degrees outside to eat salads. It’s when we sing together at women’s groups meetings and pray for each other. When we gather on the second Sunday of December and see another generation of our children and grandchildren in bathrobes with towels on their heads tell us once again that Jesus is born. When we stand together around a hole in the Easter earth and say, “Into your hands, O Lord, we commend your servant-accept, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.”

We are at our best when we love and listen to people who we know are wrong.