Dear Friends in Christ,
As I write this letter at the beginning of our Lenten journey, my heart is filled with tremendous sadness and even some anger: Not for anything I have experienced personally, but for what has happened to the Church which I have loved with all my heart for my entire life. For in the course of the past few weeks I have seen those who would call themselves leaders of the Church behave in ways that not only give the church a “black eye” in the eyes of the world, but take Jesus’ prayer for unity and throw it out the window.
The first blow to Christ’s Church came when a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor was forced by his ecclesiastical superiors to issue an apology to the entire Missouri Synod Church for participating in an ecumenical prayer service following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Despite the fact that a six-year old child from his congregation was one of the shooting victims, this young pastor was reprimanded and threatened with expulsion from the Church for his role in a prayer service that included religious leaders from other faith traditions as well as the president of the United States. His only crime? He read from the Book of Revelation and spoke a benediction in the presence of non-Missouri Synod Lutherans.
I cannot even begin to imagine the pain I would feel if my own child had been brutally murdered, only to have bureaucratic leaders from my church chastise and bully my pastor for trying to offer the love and the hope of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the resurrection and the life. Apologize for offering my family hope in the resurrection of Jesus? Really?
What must those outside of the Church think when they hear such a despicable story coming from those who supposedly represent Christ and him crucified to the world? At best, they think that particular church body is out of touch. At worst, they come to believe that all Lutherans and all Christians are close-minded bigots.
Let me say this loud and clear: I am proud of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and for its embodiment of the radical love, grace and inclusivity modeled by Jesus when he invited those without sin to cast the first stone, or when he instructed us to remove the logs from our own eyes before we insist on having the specks removed from those of our neighbors. I am proud to be a pastor in a church that says all have a place at the table. I am proud to be raising two children in a church which confesses that love of God and love of neighbor are all that matter.
But this being said, as I write this letter to you, I have just learned that our church’s enfleshment of Micah’s call to justice and Jesus’ radical call to love has come at yet another price to the unity for which our Lord prayed so long ago. Just today the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia (The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus) severed all of its ties with our denomination for the actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in which the ELCA courageously affirmed the blessings of same sex unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors, while at the same time affirming that human sexuality is a gift from God. No longer will the Ethiopian Lutheran Church allow any of its members to receive Holy Communion or any form of pastoral care from the ELCA. Nor will it allow any ELCA member, pastor or bishop to receive Communion under any circumstances whatsoever from any of its communion tables.
Mark Hanson, our presiding bishop, has issued a statement about this in which he says the actions of the Ethiopian Lutheran Church are “deeply troubling”. At the same time, he and other leaders of our denomination have been intentional about leaving the doors of dialogue and reconciliation open to all who feel that they must disavow our church credentials. “We are not of one mind” writes Bishop Hanson, “but we are one in Christ, in faith and in baptism”.
These are the words of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ that I must play over and over again in my heart. “We are not of one mind, but we are one in Christ.”
These are the words I am going to ponder in my heart in this Lenten season of introspection and renewal. And I invite you to do the same. Over the course of the next 40 days as I hear the narrative of Jesus journeying toward a cross at Golgotha where he will suffer and be rejected, I am going to look into my own heart in an earnest attempt to unearth my own prejudices and unjust ways. I am going to seek out and name my own collusion with the powers of division and injustice. And hopefully after I have discovered the ways in which I have sought to divide the body of Christ, I will lay those ways down at the foot of the cross upon which Jesus died: The cross upon which he died, not only for me, but for my sisters and brothers of the Missouri Synod Church and the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia. Then perhaps I will find the healing of which I stand in such desperate need.
Peace and Love in the healing arms of Christ,