On Friday, August 21, the Church Council for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to “commit itself to finding a way for people in...publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of the church.” This was a big deal: while there were already ELCA congregations served by clergy in same-sex partnered relationships, this amounted to an official declaration that, in the words of Gethsemane pastor Gloria Espeseth, “the church has moved” on the issue of homosexuality. “I think people in the pews are no longer willing to use pejorative labels for people they know who are gay and lesbian.”
Not everyone was pleased with the decision. Acknowledging this in his address to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly that served as the occasion for the vote, presiding bishop Mark Hanson quoted Paul: “Bear with one another...clothe yourselves with love...let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts...teach and admonish one another in all wisdom...in the name of the Lord Jesus.” He then said, “That passage gives invitation...that those deeply disappointed today will have the...freedom to continue to admonish and teach in this church.... What is absolutely important for me is that we have the conversation together.”
The guiding principle, according to the resolution, was for ELCA members “to respect the bound consciences of those with whom they disagree.” On Sunday, Espeseth offered this explanation: “I would think, at a minimum, what ‘bound conscience’ means is that those who want to keep the tradition will not be accused of being homophobic, and those who want this change, even for the whole church” — as opposed to wanting it only for congregations open to it — “will not be accused of not honoring the authority of Scripture.”
Espeseth compared the disagreement to the disagreement in Galatia over whether or not gentiles had to be circumcised in order to join the church. In his letter to the Galatians, “Paul was grappling with the question of...what do you do when people vary on the understanding of morals or ethics. In Galatia, he said, ‘No, you can’t say that because you’re adding something for salvation.’ But if the message of the Gospel wasn’t at risk, Paul called communities to live with that kind of diversity without offending each other. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
To some extent, the move was anticipated by the welcoming statement in the Gethsemane bulletin: “As Lutheran Christians, we are a people centered in God’s unconditional grace, not in judgment. We warmly welcome you to our church community. You are invited to be part of our journey of spiritual discovery regardless of your race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, marital status, social or economic state, physical or mental challenge, and whether you are confident or questioning in your faith.” Not only the part about sexual orientation — also the part about questioning. It was, I thought, noteworthy that Bishop Hanson called on those who opposed the policy change to continue admonishing and teaching.
“We’ve had people ask us to change our name from Gethsemane,” said Espeseth. Understandably: in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ asked that the cup of suffering pass from Him; and He received no answer. “But we’ve had other people thank us, saying, ‘I thought I just had to believe in Happily Ever After all the time.’ That isn’t how it works, and we do name that other part, the part about ambiguity.” In her sermon, she put it this way: “Jesus did not have the opening of heaven like He did at His baptism; He did not experience power as He did during His miracles. He simply needed to get up and go.”
The sermon concerned the Jewess Esther, married to the King of Persia, who was having a “Gethsemane moment” of her own. Her cousin Mordecai was calling her to go unbidden to the king — to risk her life — for the sake of her people. His counsel: “Who knows whether or not it was for a time such as this that you are there?” Who knows, indeed. “Mordecai was not a prophet. He didn’t say, ‘I have a word from the Lord; it’s all going to be okay.’ Most of the time, we don’t have that...and sometimes, we’ll be wrong. There are people on both sides of this issue who felt they were called by God to step up.”
The singer sang a Martina McBride song: “God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good/ And when I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should/ But I do it anyway.”
The prayers of the faithful asked, “We pray that we might be empowered by Your Holy Spirit to do that which You will for us...to take a stand, to help someone face evil, to open up complexity.”
What happens when we die?
“God knows,” replied Espeseth.
2696 Melbourne Drive, Serra Mesa
Founded locally: 1959
Senior pastor: Gloria Espeseth
Congregation size: 120
Staff size: 1 full-time, 5 part-time
Sunday school enrollment: none at present
Weekly giving: around $2000
Annual budget: around $150,000
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal to formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes