Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Seeing the face of Christ

Yesterday, I felt compelled to speak before the ELCA Churchwide Assembly--something which absolutely terrified me. (You can watch it here, about 37 minutes into the video--also watch Jay McDivit who spoke two people after me.) This is not something I would normally be inclined to do, but I felt like I had a perspective to offer that I hadn't yet heard. And so, when the Assembly went into Committee of the Whole to discuss "Gift and Trust: The ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality" I quickly found myself in the queue at the mic to speak in favor of adopting the social statement.

I was honestly pretty freaked out to be at the mic, and I voiced this fear (hoping it might calm my nerves to acknowledge it publicly) and asked the assembly if it would pray for me as I spoke. People who know me asked if this was an intentional "ice breaker" to get people engaged and on my side, because typically I come off as quite confident in public speaking (I'm a preacher for crying out loud) and they were surprised that I would be so nervous. But it wasn't a ploy at all, I was shaking as I stood in line and that got even worse after I sat down. Simply terrified. I don't know if it was the gravity of the situation, the 3 minute time limit, or the fact that I was making a very public proclamation on an issue that is very controversial. But I knew I needed the prayers of this church to make it through (and I came to find out later via Twitter and Facebook that many of my friends were praying along at home.)

My call for prayer, however, was answered in another way that caught me totally off guard. While I was standing in line before my turn came at the green "in favor" mic I met the fellow in the red "opposed" line next to me whose name was John. During some moment of parliamentary mumbo-jumbo on the stage we had been chatting about what we thought was key to this issue of homosexuality and the Bible. We had a great conversation over those few minutes, but it was clear that we were coming from totally different places on this and that we would be speaking opposite points to the assembly. But the conversation was good--just the sort of open, honest theological engagement with people who disagree that I hope this social statement will lead us into. But what caught me totally off guard was that when I asked for prayer from the Assembly, John put his hand on my shoulder and left it there, holding me in prayer the entire time I was speaking.

As powerful as the laying on of hand was for me this Sunday at Solomon's Porch (see post below) this act of kindness and Christian compassion blew my mind. Added to that I was speaking about Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 and how when these two people shared faith across differences that both emerged changed. On my shoulder I had a physical reminder of just how powerful this can be--and why disagreements need not divide us from our Christian brothers and sisters. John became for me the face of Christ in a place I least expected it. A word, a touch, and act of unbelievable grace across the aisle, with someone whom it would be so easy to ignore, attack, or dismiss. A reminder that Christ calls us ALL to repentance, to confess of the ways that we have failed to be neighborly to one another, and thus have failed to make Christ real in the lives of others. John, you made Christ real for me last night.

And so tonight, my heart broke when the social statement was adopted. Don't get me wrong, I was in favor of it passing, but my heart broke because I knew that while I celebrated, my brother in Christ John would be mourning. And when the Presiding Bishop announced that worship the next day would include a time for washing one another's feet, I knew that I needed to worship with John, to take an opportunity to repay the amazing gift he had given me, to sing and pray together, to share Christ's body and blood, and on bended knee to wash my new friend's feet. I need to be the church with John for both of our sakes, to let the Word wash over me and him together, to be united in prayer, to be encountered by Christ in the bread and wine we share, to humble myself as he humbled himself.

When I went to find John, I found him already deep in conversation with someone about the effects of this social statement for him. And as I stood waiting for a moment to invite him to join me the next day for worship, I overheard his pain, his sadness, his sense of betrayal of the church he knows and loves. And I know that John is not alone in his grief. Tonight there are many ELCA Lutherans in mourning, wondering where they will now find a place where they are welcome, that preaches the Good News of Jesus in a way they can understand and be encountered by it. But the closeness of the vote (EXACTLY the 2/3 needed for adoption--that never happens) reminds me that this situation could have so easily been reversed (by a single vote). But, had that happened, I would not have been surprised had John tracked me down, embraced me, offered words of comfort and encouragement, and invited me to worship with him. To reach out with that neighborly love that Jesus calls us to extend to one another.

In the end, this is what this whole conversation is really all about. How will we love one another, remain in community with one another, support and uplift each other in the face of extreme differences? That is the calling that Christ gives us when we are baptized into the community of the Church. It is a mighty challenge, especially when it comes to issues that ignite great passion. But that is where we are called in Baptism--to be one body, one church, one community of people who come together not because we agree on everything, but because of Christ. And John was the face of Christ to me through this, and I pray that I (or someone) can be the face of Christ for him, to share the grace that he and so many others desperately need to hear, that they too are welcome, that they are valued as beloved Children of God, and that even though we profoundly disagree our unity comes from Christ.

My church is less without John and all of those people who read the Bible differently than I do, who apply it differently based on their context, their lives, and their best attempts to be faithful in life and practice. All the news this evening has been about the upcoming split in the ELCA, but I pray that the news of tomorrow and the days ahead is the shocking, countercultural news that the ELCA did not split--that those who "lost" embraced those who "won" and walked hand in hand from the plenary hall where motions are debated and decisions made into the worship hall where Christ comes to us all--whoever we are, whatever we believe, however different we are--and transforms us into his body for the sake of the world. That would be Good News indeed.

"Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I will have the grace to let you be my servant too."


  1. Ok, I finally got the video to cooperate, I think the trick is running ahead of 37min and "rewinding". Nice speech brother, I'd call it a little sermon.

    As I think about how so often in churches our disagreements and quarrels are really about something deeper than the expression, I was gladdened to hear you talk about the issue in term of the Book of Faith conversation. Ultimately that's what this disagreement is about. I think there are also some deep theological understandings of what the Lutheran church is about that make little sense from our Samuelsonain theology (to coin a phrase) that are at the heart of this matter. Bringing the conversation back to the idea clean & unclean about the Ethiopian eunuch is important. I find the most compelling lines from scripture for me on this issue are Paul's discussion of circumcision vs. uncircumcision, jew vs. gentile, etc.

    Personally, I don't mind a schism if it happens. I think that every denomination has a place in the body of Christ, but I hope that those who feel pushed out by this decision will still feel welcome in the ELCA and will continue to offer a strong voice in this conversation.

  2. What I haven't figured out: how we can teach in the dialectic of Law and Gospel in light of the doctrine of "bound conscience" - which is the strongest teaching statement in the Sexuality Statement.

    Does this new doctrine obfuscate the 2nd Use of the Law? Gerhard Forde rejected the piety of the 3rd use as obscuring a clear dialectic between Law and Gospel - the 3rd use leads too often into agreement with the positions of Karl Barth who attempt to create a 'new law' based on knowledge gained through faith.

    I fear that the idea of 'bound conscience' echoes Barth's claim that the law in this age is a "misunderstanding" and that the very nature of the Gospel is obscured in this way. (i.e. we cannot "call forth the new" if we "bind ourselves to the old" in a way that eliminates God's use of the law to accuse and condemn. That strikes me as a new life under the law - which Forde reminds us just makes things worse.)

    (Ref: G. Forde, "Law-Gospel Debate", Fortress Press. G. Forde, "Where God Meets Man", Fortress Press.)

  3. Hi Erik,
    Thanks for your thoughts, the Spirit's blessed you with a compassionate heart, which is certainly a blessing for me. The assembly's actions have made a future in the ELCA hard, which as I type it, is pretty jarring. Anyways, however all this goes, I'm glad to know that Sophia is still amongst us all.
    Have a good time in the cities!
    Josh EM

  4. You rightly force us in this blog and in your use of it at your speech (which I caught live - and caught me a little by surprise - not used to seeing red!) toward compassion for our neighbor. I have a couple of thoughts:
    In many ways, the resolution to allow clergy in same-sex committed relationships to be rostered is a form of the 2nd use of the law. "Law" is not letters but function. Do we "convict" gays by not letting them be clergy? Why do we let them be baptized - or take communion? And the rule actually supports the 1st use - we give gay sexuality (and clergy gay sexuality) safe boundaries which protect us all.
    Since we baptize gay people, we must let them be pastors. Are clergy as special class of the baptized? If we deny gays the right to be simultaneously pastors and fully sexual beings, should we not also do this for all other baptized "called" to ministry in the church as laity? The church externally affirms the internal call to ministry of the laity as well to the clergy. We can't have gay lay people doing ministry and not be celibate.
    In NE Iowa, one of the oldest churches west of the Mississippi split in the 1880's over predestination. Muddy roads split them into East Paint Creek and West Paint Creek Lutheran in the 1860's. In 1880, pre-destination made them Old East and West Paint Creek (now ELCA) and East and West Paint Creek (Little Norwegian Synod). BOth parishes (all 4 churches) survive to this day. Both preach Christ. Everyone from all 4 churches enjoy great Lutefisk and incredible Swedish meatballs at Old West Paint Creek each fall.
    Christ will be preached in his church united or divided. Because ordination of pastors in same sex committed relationships is not an issue on which the church stands or falls.

  5. That was my favorite moment of this week. Thanks for sharing your experience of's going in my sermon for this Sunday
    Blessings, Nadia
    aka The Sarcastic Lutheran

  6. Eric, thank you for this sermon. I am going to share your and John's story with my community, also, as it is all of our story as the Body of Christ. May it be so. I am blessed to be in relationship and in ministry with you! You teach and inspire me.
    Peace, MReed

  7. Christ will be preached in his church united or divided. Because ordination of pastors in same sex committed relationships is not an issue on which the church stands or falls.

    I do fear that it's not the "ends" where the church stands or falls, but in the "means"; in particular the new doctrine of bound conscience.

    Matters of the conscience are extraordinarily important in the Lutheran Confessions; the conscience is where Law convicts and kills and where the Gospel calls forth the new. I could accept the idea that my conscience is "bound", but I would also have to struggle with competing ideas:

    1) That a bound conscience also encounters my bound (and sinful) will - how do I separate the two?

    2) When do I confess that my bound conscience isn't a good place to be?

    A seemingly insignificant 'means' to an eventual end may unravel the ability for the Gospel to work as the salve my conscience needs.