12th Sunday of Pentecost
First Lesson: Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Second Lesson: Ephesians 6:10-20
Gospel: John 6:56-69
Please note: The following sermon is provided as a resource for the thought, prayer, and meditation of the members and friends of Christ Hamilton United Lutheran Church. It is the residue of a verbal event, and thus it may not be a word for word transcript of the sermon heard on the morning listed above nor does it have academic footnotes and other details that would be expected in a written document. The author gladly acknowledges the prior thought and work of many Christians before him.
A woman was going about her morning routine one Sunday morning. As she did, she came up to the door of her son’s bedroom and knocked on it. “John,” she called sweetly, “It’s Sunday. Time to get up for church.” From inside she heard a muffled “Mffpph!” so she continued to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.
About fifteen minutes later, she came up to her son’s door again and knocked. “John,” she called in a more authoritative voice, “time to get up. It’s Sunday, and we’ve got church.” As she peeked inside the room, she saw her son pull the covers resolutely over his head and roll over. She sighed and went back to her routine.
Fifteen minutes later she was fed up and marched into her son’s room. “John, get out of that bed. It is Sunday morning, and church begins in an hour.”
John threw the covers back and shouted, “I don’t want to! I’m tired of going to church. Those people are nothing but hypocrites and frauds. They don’t care a thing about what the Bible says. They never show the love of Christ to each other. They just politic and gossip and feel smug about themselves, and I’m sick of it!”
John’s mother looked at him and replied, “John, you are going to get out of that bed, get your clothes on, and go to church, and I am going to tell you why: One, because you are thirty nine years old. Two, because you are the pastor.”
It is easy to despair about the state of the Church and those within her. While watching the Church Wide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I spent a great deal of the past week doing just that. At that Assembly, the ELCA passed a social statement on human sexuality and four specific proposals related to the blessing of gay unions and ordination of non-celibate gay clergy. As the news came down item by item, and Lutherans were for once—and in all likelihood for the last time—significant enough to garner national press attention, I found myself battling against despair, not because of the conclusions my colleagues had come to, for I am a compassionate guy with many gay friends & family, and in some sense I would like to be persuaded I could with Biblical integrity grant them all they desire. No, I struggled against despair because these conclusions had been reached by procedural sleight of hand and readings of Holy Scripture that were either undisciplined or outright intellectually dishonest, ways of reading that were completely out of step with the whole of Christian tradition and Lutheran Reformation principles in particular.
In many ways the Social Statement is more troubling to me than the ministry proposals, though its effects will be less immediate and less obviously spectacular, for it establishes a way of reading Scripture that is once again arcane and for the experts. The Lutheran principle of the basic clarity of Scripture and that any “interpretations” must first and foremost square with the plain meaning of the text are abandoned. Using the template of the Social Statement, only experts in the social sciences, psychology, and statistics are qualified to understand the Bible. The Bible has been once again taken out of the hands of God’s people and chained to the altar where only the properly initiated can read it. This Social Statement establishes a precedent for the way theology will be done in the future, pitting the Scriptural witness against itself so that abstract principles gleaned from its stories rather than the plain meaning of the text can be used as our guide.
The use of abstract principles rather than actual Biblical ideas is important, for the agenda at work within the social statement is much broader than “gay rights,” and I am indebted here to the Rev. Prof. Paul R, Hinlicky, Tice Professor in Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia for his helpful summation of the forces I saw at work during seminary and since at the level of church bureaucracy. I will quote extensively from Dr. Hinlicky in the next few moments. In what I view as the real battle going on within the church today, self-identifying homosexuals are being used by people who espouse a religious vision very different from Creedal Christianity. They are being so used both out of genuine conviction that their cause is just and because as a group they possess several characteristics that make them a useful wedge to accomplish much broader theological agendas.
They are so useful first and foremost because “homosexuals form a vulnerable sexual minority that has suffered from ignorance and the soft persecution of social stigmatization. If we have a shred of human decency, not to say Christian love, our hearts [should] go out to these underdogs. Second, [we] pastors especially have learned in the confessional of the struggles, the loneliness, and the pain of homosexual persons, and [our] hearts ache for them.” Third, Christians who are gay or lesbian seem not to be asking for special treatment, but simply “the same rite of marriage offered to heterosexuals, recognizing their attempt to live in a relation of lifelong mutual commitment, and holding them publicly accountable to it.”
These characteristics conspire to make any Christian who refuses to go along with the requests of the gay community ask themselves am I ignorant, a bigot, or simply unable to overcome my own “crude emotional revulsion at a sexual attraction opposite my own?” The intellectual and emotional inducements to find ways to read the Bible that allow me to give people what they are both winsomely and stridently asking for are at this point great.
If I do that—if for emotional reasons I find ways to make the Bible say what it patently does not, or even more, make the Bible say the opposite of what it says—I can be persuaded to go fishing for proof quotes that make the Bible say anything at all. And here are some of the things Dr. Hinlicky identifies the theological revisionists as wanting me to find Biblical warrant for that are in tension with or opposite the Biblical truths our ELCA Constitution proclaims foundational for us:
The Triune name of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
“In the church in which I was ordained, [and the church in which most of us were catechized], this bold confession and public praise of the Triune God is the free, joyful, and unanimous act of those assembled by the gospel. But in “this church,” confessing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already become an increasingly begrudged option. With the adoption of the new hymnal—a project that was never subjected to doctrinal review—unconscionable and unjustified revisions in the language of the creeds, the Psalms, and hymn texts were made. … Chief among the things the religious Left wants to say is that we construct names for God out of our own experience. That “enthusiasm” is the deeper reason why the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions have to be robbed of their formative power in theology and neutralized in the life of “this church.” Homosexuality represents a perfect opportunity.”
The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed:
The church which bears the name of Luther bears it truthfully when it teaches, as Luther taught, that “the true people of God are those who bring to bear the judgment of the cross on themselves.” One would never know from the Social Statement that the Bible contains a sharp word of judgment based upon God’s revealed Law protecting marriage and the family against any and all sins in the arena of sexuality, chiefly heterosexual sins like fornication, adultery, and divorce, but also homosexual relations. Far from pastoral care speaking God’s Word of judgment and mercy, the Social Statement offers nothing but a so-called “ethics of responsibility” in which consenting adults can do as they please so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. That’s understandable, perhaps, as a very minimal standard in secular, liberal society, but it is a cataclysmic fall from New Testament exhortation, the preaching of the prophets and the law of Moses, which our Lord does not slacken but rather radicalizes.”
The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.
The Social Statement does not shrink from attacking canonical Scripture and Luther’s belief that God speaks through the plain sense of the canonical text. It disowns this “sola scriptura” teaching, just as the religious [revisionist] regularly attacks as “fundamentalism” any position serious about the Bible’s teaching as binding doctrine normative for the life of the church.
This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
But the Social Statement does not take the notable texts of Genesis 1:26-28 and our Lord’s invocation of this text in Mark 10:2-12 as the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life in the arena of sex, marriage and family life; it rather ignores their weight and force entirely. … I ask: as a matter of integrity, for heaven’s sake, what does the name “Lutheran” mean theologically if not that we want to belong to a church that is pleased and delighted to receive the Scriptures, for which theology is the work of making their teaching alive and instructive for us today—not doing intellectual somersaults to avoid the plain sense meaning of Scripture and replace it with something manifestly the opposite of what it teaches?
This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
But the Social Statement utterly ignores the Reformation-era controversies regarding monastic vows and the theology of marriage that the Reformers developed out of the Holy Scriptures and professed in the Augsburg Confession in the light of the gospel. One of the most important social consequences of the Reformation gospel is therefore ignored as an embarrassment and left behind as an impediment to the sexual liberation intended for us by the religious [revisionists].
All power in the Church belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ, its head. All actions of this church are to be carried out under his rule and authority.
One looks in vain for this Spirit of Jesus Christ in these documents, let alone a procedure which would reflect the lordship of Christ in any meaningful way. On the contrary, the Social Statement never even thinks to say that the church (even “this church”) does not belong to me or to you or even to all of us together, but to Jesus Christ: “with His own blood he bought her and for her life He died.” Instead, the Social Statement and the processes informing it proceed as if the church belongs to us, so that we can turn it into whatever we want, as supposedly led by the “Spirit” apart from the external [objective] word and news of the gospel of Christ’s redeeming lordship as authoritatively witnessed to in Scripture.
All expressions of the Church are equally and completely the Church: “In length, [the ELCA] acknowledges itself to be in the historic continuity of the communion of saints; in breadth, it expresses the fellowship of believers and congregations in our day.”
But members of the commission who drafted the Social Statement were instructed not to represent their own congregations, nor to think their own theological thoughts, nor to argue for the truth that binds us together in love on the basis of canon, creed, and confession. All this was disallowed and instead they were instructed to seek institutional consensus. We have this on the express witness of task force member Marit Trelstad … Likewise, at the Church Wide Assembly, the delegates are instructed that they are not representatives of their congregations and synods but constitute some unique and historic expression of God’s will for these sacred ten days in which they will be led by the Spirit to throw historic continuity with the church through the ages out the window. Never were the task force members asked, nor are the assembly delegates be asked, to preserve, protect, and defend the broader fellowship of the faithful.
As I said earlier, it would be easy to become pessimistic or despair about the state of the Church, but to do so would be unfaithful to our Lord Christ. For it was He who said that upon the confession of Him as Lord He would build His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. It was He who said that wherever two or three are gathered in His name—that is, gathered not merely using His name, but invoking it in honor of who He truly is, “proclaiming the gospel in its purity,” to quote the Lutheran Confessions—He would be among them.
It would also be to ignore the evidence of our own senses: Christ Hamilton is. Christ Hamilton is bucking the trend of old mainline congregations sliding into the sideline. Christ Hamilton is healthy both inside and out because people come here and encounter Christ through His Sacraments and through the preaching of the whole counsel of God. Christ Hamilton is flourishing because Christ is faithful.
The struggle going on within the ELCA today is being played out in just about every denomination across the board. It is not about homosexuality or homosexuals, and if you are struggling with sexual issues, particularly homosexual inclinations, or have friends or family who do, and if you have not felt that you could share those struggles with your Christian brethren, please let me take this moment to apologize on behalf of the whole Church. All of us struggle in some way with sexual sin in thought, word, or deed, and you should not have had to suffer in silence or been made to feel that your affliction is peculiar or of greater consequence than anyone else’s. Indeed, in terms of the number of people impacted and the scope of hurt caused at the level of individuals, families, and society, we who struggle with heterosexual sin have far more to ask God’s pardon for than you do. No the struggle going on within the ELCA today is about who Christ is, and whether this book, the Bible, is a reliable witness to His person and His will for us.
Let us be clear: If the Bible is not reliable about those things, we have no news to proclaim, no particular hope for salvation, no reason even to think that God cares for us, let alone loves us and forgives our sins. The very hope of salvation—that is what is at stake in the controversy before the church.
I do not know what will happen next. Nobody does. To set your mind at ease, nothing radical will happen here at Christ Hamilton in the near future. I have yet to decide upon my own reaction vis-à-vis the Synod and ELCA, but that will have more personal impact upon me than it will upon this congregation. I can tell you that we will walk through this as a congregation, together as a family of faith who loves and cares for one another. I will over the course of the coming weeks and months being thinking through each of the issues as I understand them publicly. I will be sharing my reflections through podcasts, articles, CD recordings that can be taken out of the library, and town hall style meetings here at the church. I will try to lead us as a congregation in having loving, but truthful discussions.
This will not be easy. “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) That sword will, as Jesus predicted, set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matt 10:35) God’s Word will test our fidelity and probe the depths of our hearts, and we will, each of us, in the end learn where we stand. Some of us may determine, as one congregation member recently did, that we cannot journey any longer with Christ Hamilton, no matter how much we love the people. I respect that person’s conscience and integrity, and continue to converse with them as a friend and fellow seeker after truth. Others of us may feel called to witness to a minority report over and against our congregationally-adopted Re-Statement of Faith while still others may feel called labor to help others embrace more deeply that same statement.
Whatever we do, we will do it together as the people of God, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, bearing one another’s burdens and sharing one another’s grief and joys. Knowing the mercy of our Lord and knowing how great a need I have of it if I am in the end to be saved, I fully expect to meet and embrace in the Church triumphant many of the people whom this controversy will force me to square off against in the Church militant. I expect us to weep tears and speak words of repentance for our different sins in this life and rejoice at the loving correction we have received at the Father’s hand.
But until that day comes, we must struggle in this world, and the Word of God confronts us all in all its appalling beauty, power, and objective otherness. Some will hear that word and find it too hard, turning away, as did many of the disciples in today’s Gospel reading. Others will hear that word and say to God, “you have the words of eternal life.” May each of us, when confronted, convicted, and comforted by God’s Word, be granted the power to say with Joshua, “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” Amen
 Dr. Paul R. Hinlicky; It’s Not About Homosexuality—Not Really; http://www.lutheranforum.org/sexuality/its-not-about-homosexuality-not-really/; all other quotations ibid.