Lutheran Church Commission on Worship: God Will Be Extremely Harsh On Advocates for Women’s Ordination and Marriage Equality.

Sometimes things get personal. Pft. Who am I kidding? This whole thing is personal. But sometimes things effect me more than others. When that happens my posts serve as a kind of therapy. I guess, dear Reader, that makes you my therapist. I hope you don’t mind. This is a therapy post.

I felt nauseous in church on Sunday. I had to leave before the service was finished. It’s about what happened the previous Sunday, a delayed reaction I guess. Let me explain.

The Lutheran Church of Australia has a group called the Commission on Worship (COW). They post worship resources on the LCA website for congregational use.  Those resources include approved sermons to be used for lay reading in congregations without pastors. Such is our congregation.

It has been difficult for me to be in church over the last couple of years. This post from Good Friday 2012 will explain why. But as I sat in church at the beginning of the service last sunday morning things felt different. It felt good. It felt a little bit like home again.

I have been pushing for a couple of years for the congregation to undertake some formal public discussion on the question of homosexuality. I had prepared a series of studies that present the issues from the perspective of a gay person in the church. I pushed for these studies to be used as a way of starting that public conversation. The congregation had recently agreed to the studies being conducted. It felt to me that the doors of the church that had been closed to my gay friends had opened up just a little to them and to me.

I didn’t expect that the church would become gay affirming overnight. In fact, the most recent paper released by the Church’s Commission on Theology continues to call homosexuality sinful. It seems to me that the end of discrimination  of gay people in our church is still a long way off. But it felt good to know that I was sitting amongst a group of people who were at least willing to give the question an honest look.

I was sitting next to a friend of mine. She is a public school chaplain. At the end of the service it was arranged for her to say a few words to promote the studies on homosexuality. She was going to say how important it was for her to be informed about the issue because of the number of gay kids she interacts with in her chaplaincy work.

The service was nice. The music was nice. I found myself participating in the songs and joining in the prayers in a way that I had not done since that Good Friday 2012.

The sermon was based on the epistle reading for the day. A favourite text of mine. I nudged my friend when the reading was announced. “Listen to this! I LOVE this text!”.

Ephesians. 2.

14 For (Christ) himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

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If there was ever a time for a message such as this, it is now. The world is full of “dividing walls of hostility”. We are divided by nationality, creed, race, sexuality, economic status. We gather in like-minded groups and feel a sense of unity and security over and against those who are different to us, those we do not understand, those we fear. We repeat amongst ourselves all the reasons why we are right and they are wrong and we let this repetition of our “Law” define what it means to be “Us”, to be  Australian or  Christian or Lutheran or straight or gay or whatever.  And so, to our shame,  we end up defining ourselves by who we reject. Dividing walls of hostility indeed.

But the ministry of Jesus, the Cross of Christ, says…

“Enough of this nonsense.  The Law with its commands and regulations and the hostility it produces dies here. It ends today. It is finished.”

In the context of the discussion on homosexuality it was surely the perfect passage. There is a lot of emotion bundled up in this topic. The dividing walls of hostility seem to be getting higher.

There are gay people who have been told by our church that they are sinful, disordered and diseased. Their families and those who have advocated for them also feel rejected and marginalised by the church. 

There are those in the church who believe that if they accept homosexuality they deny the word of God and compromise their faith. They believe that everything they say and do is motivated by their love for God. They are hurt and offended by the accusation that they are bigots and that their beliefs  do harm to gay people. 

Into the middle of this conflict the Apostle Paul places the Cross of Christ. A bold challenge for both sides to lay down their “Laws”, to put aside their proofs as to why they are right and the other side is wrong, to join hands and face the cross together and receive the gift of unity. Both sides are made one in the body of Christ. THIS should be the starting point for our discussion.

Based on this text, the lay reader gave a beautiful children’s address using a jigsaw puzzle to illustrate how even though we are all different, we all fit together, we all belong.

Yes. For the first time in 3 years it felt good to be in church.

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Then… the sermon was read.

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The sermon drew from the Old Testament reading which condemned the shepherds of God’s people for “destroying and scattering the sheep of God’s pasture”.

The sermon then got quite explicit in defining who these destroyers and scatterers are today…

…it is when we now turn our attention to today, that we surely are concerned and challenged. Now, as we are being encouraged to accept women as pastors, homosexual marriage, watering down what our church believes and practices, and many other issues, there is increasing pressure on us to give way.

The sermon said that the advocates for woman’s ordination and marriage equality (ie. me)  encourage people to “not take God’s word seriously” and stated that God “will be extremely harsh on those who lead his people astray”.

The sermon included these damning words.

There are only two Spirits active in the world; God’s Spirit and Satan. There is no middle ground that we can take or leave.

Although the logic flow of the sermon is difficult to follow at this point it seems that these words also apply to the scatterers and the destroyers, those who advocate for women’s ordination and marriage equality.

As I listened to the sermon it really did feel like blows falling on me. That is not an exaggeration. The effect was physical. I can’t really explain why. Perhaps it was the emotional whiplash of the whole affair.  The sense of peace and “home coming” I felt in the first half of the service for the first time in 3 years, my smile when I heard one of my favourite texts from Paul… and then the sermon which wrenched me all the way back to Good Friday 2012.

As I listened, I kept thinking about the text. I couldn’t understand how the sermon writer could say such divisive and hurtful things on the basis of such a wonderful, inclusive and healing text?

The first sentence of the closing paragraph of the sermon was interesting.

Yes, divisiveness and disunity is a tragedy. However, false teaching and error is even more so. (bolding mine)

Here is a lesson for young sermon writers everywhere. When you write your conclusion and you summarise the main thesis of the Bible text,  if you then find yourself adding the word “however”, perhaps you should think again.

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I need to explain one other thing about that Sunday. It’s about the college chaplain friend who was sitting next to me. She is one of those unfortunate women in our church who has always felt a call to ministry. When as a teenager she voiced that wonderful desire to her local Lutheran pastor she was soon put in her place and told that her desire was contrary to the Bible and therefore not of God. She carries the scars of that reprimand to this day.  

I looked at her several times during and after the sermon. Her face was resolute.  I felt terribly responsible. She was there because I had asked her to come. I was very aware of her women’s ordination hurt and knew that the sermon would have opened that old wound. And I was all too aware that she was about to stand up after church and promote studies that would indeed ask the church to lend a  compassionate listening ear to those who ask for marriage equality.

Women’s ordination AND marriage equality. Double the reprimand for THIS “scatterer and destroyer”.

I wondered how she was feeling and what she would say after the service. To her credit, she did not retaliate. She showed more grace than was afforded to her in the sermon. I could see, however, how much emotion she poured into the words on behalf of gay people and I knew that at least some of that raw emotion was sparked by the sermon. I also knew that those who listened, those who said their loud “Amens” to the sermon, had no idea  of the courage it took for her to stand and speak.

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My headline to this post is provocative but not misleading. The Commission on Worship (COW) is responsible for the sermons that are read by lay readers. The church guards its pulpits jealously. Unordained people are not permitted to preach in the LCA unless their sermon has been previously approved. Even Lutheran pastors from overseas churches are not permitted to preach unless they have permission given by the LCA. With all of this “jealous guarding” the COW publishes sermons which it has read and approved as acceptable public teaching on behalf of the church.

Our congregational lay reader would have been aware of the responses and emotions that such a sermon would provoke particularly in the light of the studies the congregation is about to undertake. Why would she read such a sermon? Well, she would have done so with the firm belief that the words were fully vetted and approved by the church through the COW, that she was speaking the word of God, proclaiming the gospel, the good news about Jesus.  Lay readers all over Australia would have done the same thing. They would have trusted their church.

In my opinion. On that Sunday, with that sermon, those lay readers were misled.

I therefore ask the COW to confirm if the thoughts expressed in this sermon that they made available for lay reading are really the thoughts of the LCA. 

I know that very few Lutheran Pastors in Australia speak up for the plight of the LGBT people in our church but approximately half of the pastors in our church believe in and advocate for women’s ordination. Does the COW really believe that they are all “scattering and destroying” the flock and that God “will be extremely harsh” on them? Does the COW really believe that they are not of the Spirit of God but of Satan?

I look forward to their response.

In the mean time, how will I feel about worship next Sunday? I really don’t know.

The full sermon can be read here.