Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 16, 2011: Second Sunday after Epiphany

Texts:  Isaiah 49:1-7  •  Psalm 40:1-11  •  1 Corinthians 1:1-9  •  John 1:29-42

Grace to you and peace from God, our loving Creator, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

So, the passage Kerry read for us from First Corinthians a few minutes ago was the kind of lectionary assignment that used to drive Kyle, our former Director of Music and Community Arts, crazy. “Why do they include these passages in the lectionary for worship,” he would gripe, “it’s the introduction, it’s the name dropping, it’s not the body of the letter – it’s not the important part.” And I would agree with him. Reading the introductions to Paul’s letters – much less preaching on them – is always a little awkward. What theological importance can we read into the line,

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It’s still a little funny to think about planning worship with our friend Kyle. He and I planned worship together for three years before he was offered a position as University Organist and Coordinator of Chapel Music at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California just outside Los Angeles. It’s been just about three months since his last Sunday in worship with us. I miss him, like I think we all do, but life is busy and there’s rarely much time to spend missing people as the flood of work rushes in and demands your attention.

Then last week I picked up my voicemail messages, and there was Kyle’s voice. “Hello Erik, it already feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve spoken, but I wanted to let you know that I heard about Paul Egertson’s death this past week, and that I’m thinking of you – knowing that you were friends and colleagues – and I hope you’re doing alright. The funeral will be here at Cal Lutheran, and I’m playing for it. I wonder if you’ll be coming. It would be good to see you.”

paulegertsonPaul Egertson was a pastor in the ELCA, and a bishop in Southwest California. He was also, at the time of his death, serving on the board of directors of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries with me and the rest of that board which is with us today. A little over a week ago, we were expecting him to be with us this morning.

Paul was a loving husband to his partner, Shirley, and father of six sons. His eldest son, Greg, was one of a group of four seminarians who, upon graduating from seminary in the late 80s, refused to abide by the policies of the newly formed ELCA that mandated celibacy for gay and lesbian persons called to ordained ministry. Actually, the church had a much less elegant way of putting it in those days, the policy said, “ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.” It was like they were trying to find a way to say sexual as many times as possible in one sentence. Thank God we’ve gotten rid of that policy!

In 1993 Greg was part of a small group of Lutherans in the San Francisco Bay area who founded the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, which was more commonly known as the ECP. The Extraordinary Candidacy Project was a kind of church disobedience movement that worked with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer pastors and seminarians – some of whom had been kicked out of the church, some who were just beginning seminary – but all of whom were not in compliance with that hard to say, ugly sounding policy about celibacy. The ECP set up a parallel candidacy and credentialing process for those pastors and seminarians, using the same criteria of the ELCA with the single exception of not requiring celibacy from LGBTQ people. This allowed congregations who wanted to call an openly, or publicly-identified, LGBTQ person to do so, knowing that they’d been thoroughly examined and approved for ministry. The hope was that one day these “extraordinarily” ordained pastors would be received back into the “ordinary” roster of ELCA clergy.

Those of you who’ve been around St. Luke’s for a while know all about the ECP because, after years of being in a call process, looking for a pastor to work with you on an ambitious plan to revitalize St. Luke’s ministries in Logan Square, this congregation turned to the Extraordinary Candidacy Project as an additional source for potential pastors. Judi Keippel remembers receiving a postcard from the ECP with a photograph on the cover of all the ECP-rostered pastors and seminarians, inviting congregations to consider opening their next call process to the ECP. Judi brought the postcard to the call committee and the church council, and the decision was made to open St. Luke’s call process to the ECP as well.

To some people outside St. Luke’s that seemed like an unlikely decision, a small group of mostly older Lutherans in a struggling congregation opening up their call process to a group of out, LGBTQ activist pastors in a decades-long struggle to reform the church. But it wasn’t that out of character for St. Luke’s. It certainly wasn’t the first time this congregation had hosted an extraordinary Lutheran ordination.

Back in 1945, this congregation hosted the ordination of Robbin Skyles, an African-American pastor in the old Illinois Synod. We sometimes misrepresent that event by saying that he was the first African-American pastor in Lutheran ministry – that’s not true by a longshot. That honor goes to the Rev. Jehu Jones of Philadelphia who in the early 1800s founded one of the first African-American Lutheran congregations in the United States. Still, over a hundred years later in the 1940s, there was still enough racism running through the Lutheran church that Pastor Skyles had trouble finding a congregation in Chicago willing to host his ordination, so St. Luke’s stepped in and hosted the event, and Pastor Skyles went on to lead St. James Lutheran Church in Washington Park on the south side from 1943 to 1981.

That wasn’t the only thing in our history that prepared St. Luke’s to open its call process to a gay pastor though. In the 1970s this congregation was pastored by the Rev. Erv Uecker, who led this congregation and lived in the parsonage along with his faithful and loving partner, Ross Walker. Though they were welcomed into the homes of many families in this congregation, those were different times and our church was a different church. Erv and Ross later left the Lutheran church, but continue
d to lead Christian ministries with a commitment to creating spaces of open fellowship for people from all backgrounds.

All of those experiences were a part of this congregation’s story when, in 1995, St. Luke’s went through about a six month process that led to the decision to become a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation. The RIC program, which is a project of Lutherans Concerned/North America, another organization working for the full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life and ministry of the Lutheran church, has been around for about twenty years now, and there are more than 450 congregations, synods, seminaries and other Lutheran ministry organizations that have made a public affirmation of their welcoming stance toward LGBTQ people. There weren’t quite so many back in 1995 though, and it wasn’t easy. St. Luke’s lost a few families over that decision. There is a cost to standing up for what you believe.

Which brings us back to Paul Egertson, whose funeral was yesterday out at Cal Lutheran. Ten years ago Paul was still serving as a bishop in Southern California. He had been a strong ally and vocal advocate for an end to the horrible policy of celibacy for LGBTQ people in ministry – but he was also a bishop, so he was required to uphold ELCA policy as long as it was in effect. And ten years ago, the Rev. Anita Hill, an openly lesbian woman in a faithful, loving relationship with her partner, Janelle, who had already been serving St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota for over a decade, but had been denied approval for ordination over and over again because of her refusal to comply with that old policy, was finally, “extraordinarily” ordained.

The preacher that day was Pastor Michael Cobbler, an amazing African-American Lutheran pastor and preacher, who is also a longtime supporter of ours here at St. Luke’s and friend to many in this congregation. And after he delivered an incredibly rousing sermon, Bishop Paul Egertson stepped forward, along with many other ordained Lutheran pastors, and laid hands on Anita to ordain her into the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It was an action in direct defiance of his obligation to uphold the policies and procedures of the ELCA. After that ordination, Bishop Paul Egertson resigned his call as bishop. There is a cost to standing up for what you believe.

But there is also an unimaginably rich, an almost inexpressible, reward for standing up for what you believe. You become part of something so much larger than yourself. You become members of one another, members of an extended family with brothers and sisters you will never meet and never know, but who paved the way for you – just as you are called to pave the way for those yet to come. You become a part of the incarnate body of Christ, washed in the same waters, fed at the same table.

Have you ever had an experience like that? What are the places in your own life where you can tell that you have seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants? Who paved the way for you to live the life you are living today? How are you called to do the same for those who will follow?

Can you hear it in the stories I’ve been telling? Kyle and I plan worship for St. Luke’s. Kyle and Greg plan a funeral for Paul. Paul and Michael plan an ordination for Anita. Anita paves the way for me, and Jen Rude and Lura Groen and Jen Nagel and Jay Wilson. Jehu Jones and Robbin Skyles pave the way for Michael Cobbler. Ross and Erv open a door that Margaret and Cindy step through to help Judi (and not just Judi, but another entire congregation!) stand up for what they believe in.

We do this work together. Not alone. That’s what it means to be reconciled in Christ, it means to lay aside the old divisions, the former rules, and to be made new, together. And this is why (and I’ve very sorry to have to say this Kyle, wherever you are, reading this on the internet ) we read, and even preach, the introduction to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. That’s why we read Paul’s name-dropping in worship, and then drop some names of our own.

We’re in this together, that’s what he’s saying,

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We do this work together. Not alone. And then even beyond that, to the good stuff,

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched by Christ, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by Jesus you were called into the community of God’s Beloved, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This is what it means to follow Christ, the one who knew what it costs to stand up for what you believe, and who did it anyways – knowing that the new life that waits on the other side of the cross is community, and connectedness, and reconciliation.

As we celebrate this RIC Sunday, we are not just commemorating a congregational vote that St. Luke’s took fifteen years ago, or a denominational policy that finally changed two summers ago. We are celebrating a movement that ties the stories of our congregation, our community of faith, to the stories of these other congregations and communities, and justice movements – and that gathers all of us together in the never-ending freedom song of God. We are marching in the light of God and, until God calls us home to rest with the brothers and sisters who have gone before us, with Jehu Jones and Robbin Skyles and Paul Egertson, we are gonna let it shine… let it shine… let it shine!

Amen!

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