ELCA's full inclusion of gays and lesbians: a Pastor's take

Categories: Civil Society
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The Evangelical Lutherans in America assembly passed a social statement on Human Sexuality. It cost the church $1.1 million and more than seven years to draft. And while many church members feel like it's a heretical statement that goes against the historic teachings of the church, Pastor Keith Olstad of St. Paul Reformation Church thinks otherwise. What follows is a selected transcription of the sermon he gave on the issue, right before the big week.

From Pastor Keith Olstad:

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our loving Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

What a good week to have wisdom!  I mean, as we head into the ELCA Church Wide Assembly, it's not just a good week to be wise, but actually to have a wisdom perspective.

Our first lesson today presents this "wisdom" perspective.  The part of God that is wisdom--not simply compassion or power or grace or creativity, but wisdom--has built a majestic palace, says our lesson, a palace with seven magnificent carved pillars.  Wisdom has set on her tables a huge banquet of various fresh meats and her own wine.  She is sending out her servants and she herself invites the most unlikely--the simple-minded and people without sense--to come to her banquet.  Lady Wisdom urges all people to savor her grandeur, her intricacy and her grace.  Her banquet, you see, has to do with coming of age, living fully, walking with insight and understanding.

This wisdom is more than simply being wise.  It is a social movement, a school of thought influential within the religious and social institutions of our biblical ancestors.  Wisdom is a perspective on life, a way of approaching the world.  It has to do with taking both natural world and human society on their own terms, dealing with them practically, pragmatically.  Wisdom has to do with seeing things as they are, and dealing with them on their own terms, making the best of what is.  It is no coincidence that contemporary feminism has deep roots in the wisdom tradition, the tradition of Sophia.

The proposed social statement on human sexuality our ELCA Church Wide Assembly will address this week can be read from a wisdom perspective.  The social statement expresses a conviction that God intentionally creates living things as sexual beings.  More than that, God actually loves and is invested in the sexuality of living things.  This conviction is not only a theological and intellectual argument--although the document has plenty of that!  It is also pragmatic: interpreting insights and understandings developed from years of observation and analysis of human and animal behavior.  What we have come to know from observation and experience is part of what informs our proposed social statement on human sexuality.  That is, if you will, the wisdom tradition at work.

I am not arguing here that the human sexuality statement is in any way sufficient or complete.  I long for a social statement, for example, with enough courage to address more helpfully the challenges single people face in coming to grips with sexuality.  I mean here those of you who are single adolescents and young adults, and I mean those of you who are older adults, whether you are never married, divorced or widowed.  Does the church really consider it adequate to say that while your sexuality is God's gift, you should avoid opening it?  Actually, by so inadequately, even glibly addressing this and other more controversial dimensions of human sexuality, the statement tacitly admits that by and large sexuality is still a distressing issue for the Church, and that in this social statement the ELCA has only begun to get real about it.  

But this social statement is a beginning, a solid beginning, and I hope that we can move ahead with it, and then can build on it.  I hope we do so from the perspective of the biblical wisdom texts.


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Not every social movement or school of thought makes claims so absolute and exclusive.  There may be very human, intuitively acceptable reasons for John's claims about exclusive truth.  But let me say two things about it: first, such limited, absolute truth rudely ignores the diversity and complexity of God's intricate creation.  It is therefore not wise.  In its ideological purity, it fails to honor the virtues of the wisdom tradition.  Secondly, too many societies that claim exclusive, absolute truth as a result pander in domination and abuse, and on such grounds charge into war.  Too much violence and abuse follows such exclusive righteousness.

Throughout history, many societies have offered diverse and nuanced cultural and theological claims on people.  But perhaps never before have people experienced what we face in our time: that we have so many cultures and convictions coming at us from so many directions simultaneously.  Our world today may be most unique in human history precisely in that we have so many opportunities and points of view making claims on us.

It is in this regard that I think the proposed policy changes that come before this week's Church Wide Assembly offer great and practical wisdom.  By creating a way for different congregations within the ELCA to make various choices, specifically in regard to the blessings of same sex unions and the honoring of the ordination of GLBT folks in committed relationships, the church agrees to move ahead in a complex world, embracing diversity within its very membership.  This is wisdom in our context, and frankly, it is still only a modest step in the direction of diversity.

In other words, as a congregation and as a whole national and even global church, I suspect that the greater challenge for us is not simply to accept the diversity within our human community, but to embrace and affirm it.  Although this social statement and even more the proposed policy changes deeply affect your long-term pastor and my dear colleague, Anita--although it is very much about affirming both her identity and her gifts--it is not only about her.  It is not only about GLBT people.  From the perspective of wisdom, this social statement and these policy proposals have to do with how each and every one of us encounters God, and honors God's lovely and loved creation.



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