A View from the “Liberal Edge”

Fron Lutheran Church in Starbuck, Minnesota invited me to be part of a three person panel to help them sort out their own future with (or without the ELCA). They invited one pastor who was pretty rabidly anti-ELCA (who was clear that the ECLA has forsaken the gospel altogether); one pastor who was graciously middle-of-the-road; and me. They invited me because of my work around full inclusion of LGBT persons, but specifically asked each panelist to address the full roster of their concerns, which included biblical understanding, gender-free language in liturgy, and universal salvation among others. And to cover it all in 25-27 minutes. Well, okay … 

I’m not 100% satisfied, as I’m uncomfortably aware that there is no uniform position on all these issues among those of us on the “liberal edge,” but I tried to be the best representative I could be for each concern, albeit too briefly.

A View from the “Liberal Edge” – Reflections for the Informational Meeting held by Fron Lutheran Church, Starbuck, Minnesota

David R. Weiss, October 7, 2012.

Thank you so much for the invitation to be with you today. I consider it a privilege to share these reflections with you. It is indeed a high honor to share in a congregation’s attempt to clarify their own faith journey, and I hope my remarks are helpful to you as you discern how to be faithful in your calling, both individually and communally to be people of God.

I was confirmed in 1974 at St. Paul Lutheran Church, an ALC German Lutheran congregation in Michigan City, IN. It has been my family’s congregation since Christmas Eve 1892. That night, my great-grandfather, Ernst Fischer, was only five years old. He’d only been in America for about two months, but he managed to coax an older brother to take him to a Christmas Eve service, and he became a faithful member of that congregation for the next 80 years, until his death just over a year before my confirmation. Church runs deep in my family.

The day I was confirmed, the Bible verse given to me was Romans 1:16 – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”   I have not always made the wisest choices in my life; I don’t suppose any of us have. But I have managed to honor that verse pretty well. I have persevered in seeking to deepen my understanding of the gospel – God’s good news made real in Jesus – and I have not been ashamed of it.

Another biblical passage that holds great meaning for me is 1st Peter 3:15, where we are instructed, “Always be prepared to respond to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” That’s my goal today: I want to set before you my best understanding of the faith represented by the “liberal edge” of Lutheranism, I suppose the place you could say I call “home.” I can’t speak for everyone who would place themselves in this camp. We are a diverse lot, just as every other “sub-set” of Lutherans has its own range of members. But I will do my best to speak about the “hope that is in me” in a way that represents the broad contours of those Lutherans with whom I hold the most in common.

We are perhaps best known (or most infamously known) for the welcome we extend to our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters in Christ, but that isn’t the best place to begin. So let me start—where we start—in our deep love for the Bible as God’s Word. A Word which we believe bears witness to a God who still today claims the freedom to be “doing a new thing” as Isaiah (43:19) proclaimed some 2500 years ago.

How do we regard the Bible, then? Well, from a wide range of perspective, I’m sure. But overall, I can say this much. We regard it as a miracle. As a text where human faith and divine grace meet in an encounter that is holy. It is also true that we insist on reading the Bible in its historical context, making full use of our human knowledge to deepen our understanding of the words that are the echoes of this sacred encounter. It is even true that many of us believe that there are passages in the Bible that reflect the finite and limited perspectives of the Bible’s human authors—including, at times, prejudices that are not God’s will but are part of the story of our faith nonetheless.

I know this strikes some of our fellow Lutherans as an attitude that takes this sacred text far too casually. But I have to emphasize, if you wish to understand our perspective, you must recognize that we believe that we are taking the Bible with the utmost seriousness. We believe we are showing the deepest respect possible to this text – that we are attending to it the way God hopes we will. And this is why: if you listen to the story of God told within the Bible, you hear the story of a God who uses every hero of the faith, from Abraham and Sara through Peter and Paul, without erasing their foibles or faults, but in the confidence that Grace can work in and through them. We happen to believe that the same was true of the biblical writers. If we acknowledge a human aspect to the biblical text that some people find unsettling, it is not because we think the Bible is less than holy, but rather because we believe that the Bible’s holiness lies precisely in God’s capacity to communicate divine grace through its very human writers – and in the midst of their shortcomings. And so we study the Bible with searching minds and reverent hearts, confident that within its pages we do hear God’s Word addressing us still today.

What do we hear within the Bible? Well, a lot, of course. I don’t say that to be glib, but to acknowledge that no short answer can suffice to honor a book of this length or complexity – and I am sure that would be true for each of our speakers today. But let me say the two things that we hear most clearly, because they are the wellspring of our thinking and our doing. We hear Christ. And we hear the story of God’s gracious and surprising welcome to all persons – a story that reaches its climax in Jesus, but one that forms the arc of the biblical narrative from first to last.

We hear Christ. We hear Christ pre-figured in the Hebrew Scripture and interpreted in the Epistles and in Revelation, and we most especially hear Christ in the story of Jesus. In the gospel accounts we hear stories of unexpected welcome and embrace offered again and again to those persons marked by human prejudice as unworthy of or outside the concern of God. We hear stories in which God’s unconditional love breaks through boundaries the way that new wine bursts old wineskins. We hear stories in which the outer edge of the community defined by Christ is paradoxically the place furthest from the center – as humans see it – and yet precisely the center as Jesus declares it; that he is found among the least of these.

And yes, we occasionally hear words of judgment, but if you listen closely, almost every word of judgment that leaves Jesus’ lips is uttered in warning against those who are attempting to keep some portion of “the least of these” on the outside. Jesus shows less patience for this attitude of righteous exclusion than for anything else in the gospels.

So, in short, when we hear Christ, we hear God’s joyful claim spoken to each of us, that we, too, quite beyond what we may have hoped for, are beloved of God.  Each.  One.  Of.  Us.  Without exception.

And we hear that story of Christ – of God’s relentless determination to become a gracious, welcoming, and saving presence in our midst – prefigured and declared in the rest of Scripture … in so many surprising ways. Listen to this rushing wind of images:

  • Abraham, a nomad—a nobody because he had neither land nor children—becomes the father of a nation.
  • Jacob, Joseph, and David—all sons second born or lower in a society where first-born sons got everything—become the very hope of their people.
  • Rebekah, a woman with no voice in her culture, resets the course of history by helping Jacob gain an inheritance that seemed destined for Esau.
  • Ruth, a Gentile woman, a Moabite no less, member of an entire people damned in the Bible—she becomes perhaps the greatest human example of faithfulness in the Bible and the great-great-great grandmother of King David as well.
  • Jael and Judith, both heroines in biblical tales largely unknown to us, seize crucial moments in history and despite their non-status as women, they single-handedly kill generals of opposing armies to save their people.
  • Jonah, in a story that has nothing to do with the size of the fish’s belly and everything to do with the size of God’s love, discovers that his God loves even his enemies.
  • Isaiah declares that eunuchs—the social-sexual freaks of his day, those persons whose anatomy whether by birth or by violence left them marginalized, exploited, or altogether outcast—eunuchs had found God’s favor. And he goes on to declare that the God of Israel is that God whose very goal is to gather outcasts, and whose gathering is far from complete.
  • The shepherds invited to witness Jesus birth are the gypsies of the first century, liked by few, trusted by none. And yet they alone share that first Christmas Eve with the holy family.
  • And Samaritans—who appear in Jesus’ famous parable, again as the lone thankful leper, and again as the woman waiting at the well—they are the scum of the earth for Jews. But now they become living signs of God’s dawning kin-dom.

And in the first years after Jesus it continues.

  • Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch.
  • Peter has his vision of forbidden foods and then preaches to Cornelius and his household—all of them Gentiles, all of the men uncircumcised, all of the women and children ritually unclean in other ways. But before Peter even finishes his message, the Spirit claims all these foreigners in a moment of holy ecstasy—exactly as they are: that is, unclean by biblical standards. And all Peter can say is “How can we wait in welcoming those whom God has so clearly and fully welcomed already?”
  • Paul announces that in Christ the lines that so divided his society: Gentile and Jew, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, these lines no longer divide us. They distinguish us, yes; we remain distinctly who we are. But they have no power to elevate or diminish our worth in God’s community.

So this isn’t just a minor theme. All manner of outsiders are brought in. Again and again and again and again. That we should hear in the stories of Jesus foremost the announcement of God’s surprising and unconditional welcome to every manner of person who might otherwise be declared marginal by the world – this isn’t an outlandish reading of Scripture. It is a reading that coheres – holds together and gains credibility – when set against the backdrop of the larger biblical narrative.

This leads us to several deep convictions: regarding the place of the Bible in preaching, the use of gendered language, the possibility of universal salvation, and the place of gay and lesbian persons in ministry. Let me say a brief word about each of these.

We honor the tradition of preaching from Scripture. It is true, that we invite Scripture to dwell in our lives as well, that we hope this text might interpret us, and that we believe that God speaks through the Biblical text into our lives today. How could we believe otherwise? The pattern within Scripture itself is that earlier texts are echoed – and sometimes reinterpreted – in later texts. Scripture itself invites us to blend our stories with the Bible’s stories. And if it seems that we are sometimes moved to use Scripture in surprising ways, how else would you expect that the Word of a God whose very essence is Sheer Surprise – how else would you expect the Word of that God to come to life in preaching today?

We proclaim the story of a God who, in the Bible, is consistently doing what Jesus declares in Matthew 25: being found among “the least of these” in the biblical world. And our preaching of that God consistently leads us to “the least of these” in our world today.

We challenge the use of gendered language because we believe that such language can hinder the reach of God’s grace in our world – and that it can – and has, at times, reinforced power relations between men and women that do not reflect God’s will but express instead the human brokenness that invites us to divide ourselves against each other.

This is undeniably a complex issue. It involves honoring both the integrity of texts and the intent of their authors. It takes us into theological claims about the character of God and anthropological claims about the essence of our gendered selves. It may involve Scriptural texts, hymn texts, and new liturgical texts – and in each case questions of translation, tradition, and poetry may come into play. So this is not easy stuff, and I don’t mean to suggest that every decision for gender-inclusive or gender-free imagery has been correct. But I think it is fair to say that the “liberal edge” of Lutheranism does insist consistently that gendered language, whether for humans or for God, carries weight. That it has always carried weight. That the weight it has carried has almost always contributed to a world where women are less valued and less safe. And that, quite apart from any revelatory status of such language – its imprint on women (and, I suppose, on men) in our world compels us to be more careful stewards of the words we choose.

Regarding the possibility of universal salvation, I can say this. Because we find in the Bible story after story after story of a God who relentlessly pursues us – and quite often pursues those we would rather not number among “us” – we are reluctant to insist that there must be a limit to God’s offer of salvation. We honor the freedom of the Spirit to blow where it wills – and we don’t believe it is appropriate to quote the Bible back to God in a way that would seek to prevent divine freedom from pursuing salvation for all persons. We recognize that there is a depth of stunning compassion and spiritual insight that can be fostered in other faith traditions … and we hesitate to deny that the Spirit may be present in other places. We don’t say this to be dismissive of the church but to be humbly respectful toward God.

While I cannot speak for everyone who endorses the concept of universal salvation, I think for many of us, it is not finally an argument about biblical texts (which can be lined up on both sides of this question) or even an argument about the logical precedence of God’s love versus God’s righteous. I think for many of us, in an awkwardly honest and humble way, it is a claim we bear witness to simply because it reflects our experience of being claimed unconditionally by a loving God. It is the only way we know to speak the truth of our lived experience.

Before I conclude with my thoughts on the ordination of gay and lesbians, I’ll say something very brief about the historic episcopate. I feel like I need to say least of all about this matter simply because it is a conversation in which I am least informed, and I do not want to speak out of ignorance. But let me offer this personal observation. I do think the ELCA compromised too much on this. We allowed our Episcopal brothers and sisters to impose on us a tradition that has no bearing on salvation, and while we may have justified it “for the sake of unity,” we gave up part of our uniquely Lutheran witness in order to achieve that. In this matter, I suspect my sentiments are quite similar to my more conservative brothers and sisters, even if my reasoning might be slightly different.

But there is a potentially provocative irony here. I would agree that the historic episcopate is not “necessary for salvation” nor “binding on all who are baptized.” And while ELCA’s official rhetoric is at pains to assure us otherwise, it does seem to me that in accepting the historic episcopate we have implicitly acknowledged a claim that challenges the simple sufficiency of Christ for salvation and which could be seen as “imposing a human commandment upon the church.” And yet, I often hear my conservative brothers and sisters come precariously close to imposing heterosexuality as a human commandment on the church and implying that, minimally, the abstention from same-sex sexual behavior is somehow “necessary for salvation.” I know that rebuttals can be made to this, but I simply note that from where I stand, the logic seems very much the same.

Finally, a word about why we believe it has been a good – though many of us would say belateddecision to ordain gay and lesbian persons.

Because of our commitment to read the Bible with as much insight as possible from the study of history and language, many of us are convinced that the Bible is simply silent on the matter of consensual, committed, life-giving same-sex relationships. Good scholarship tells us that the biblical authors lived in eras when military rape, territorial rape, pederasty, and temple prostitution all presented instances of same-sex sexual behavior that they had good reasons to condemn. For us to leap from these instances to every instance of same-sex sexual behavior seems not only unwarranted but unjust.

Given our understanding of the Bible as a text that reflect both God’s grace but also bears the mark of its human authors, others of us notice that the Bible reflects human assumptions about categories like gender and race and about practices like polygamy and slavery, that we do not accept as reflecting God’s will about these things. And we note, too, that human attitudes, which have so often worked to marginalize those who are different, may be quick to read into the biblical text a condemnation that the biblical authors themselves were not making. We don’t say this to judge the intentions of others; we say it in a humble recognition that we do see now that too often in the past the Bible has been invoked for causes that were neither noble nor righteous, and we believe that should give all of us pause lest we be found doing the same thing today.

Others of us begin with the contemporary – and unfolding – understanding of the complexity of human sexuality. On this account we assert that new insight helps us see that past assumptions have been driven more by the power of prejudice that a majority can hold over a minority than by actual and accurate understanding of one another.

Still others begin with the biblical arc of welcome that I referenced earlier. If God – throughout the biblical tale – has always been widening the circle of God’s family … and if God has often done this in ways that unsettled people in the past, then why is it so unimaginable that God would widen the circle further yet today? Probably every one of us in this room is here today because Peter preached to Cornelius and his household. We – unless we happen to be ethnic Jews – are the distant cousins of Cornelius’ household. We are persons declared unclean by the Hebrew Scripture. And it was Peter’s willingness (and Paul’s passionate commitment) to acknowledge the presence of God in a most unexpected place – Gentiles – that opened the doors of the church to us. In whose name do we dare bar the doors to others?

Finally, for others of us, the journey toward welcome begins as we listen to the faith stories of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. When Peter was preaching to Cornelius, it was the visible-audible inrushing of the Spirit into the Gentiles that persuaded Peter that he was witnessing the presence of God. When Paul reported to the Council of Jerusalem about his ministry among the Gentiles, to our knowledge he did not present an argument based on refuting the Hebrew Scripture statements about excluding Gentiles from God’s community. Instead, he reported on the “signs and wonders” he witnessed God doing in the lives of Gentiles. So when some of us make claims for welcome and affirmation based on what we hear and what we see in our encounters with gay and lesbian persons today, we do not see ourselves as forsaking the Bible but as following the Bible in honoring the presence of God when it becomes unmistakably manifest to us here today.

Friends in Christ, I am humbly aware, that I could speak for days and not exhaust the grace of God, which has so claimed my life. These few minutes seem a paltry witness to an experience that most days swallows me whole and often races beyond even my best poetic efforts. I hope I have done some measure of justice to the perspective you hoped I might share with you. That I have offered you good food for thought. And that you can receive my words as the witness of a child of God happy to have been washed in the same baptismal waters as you, and hopeful to join with you one day in the feast to come. Thank you for your kind attention.

* * *

David R. Weissis the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, four grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at drw59@comcast.net. Read more at http://www.tothetune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

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