The ELCA Church-Wide Assembly 2009 and Mark 10.35–45


David Balch—Pentecost 9

I finished this sermon all of 30 minutes ago. When I told Carlton this a moment ago, he seemed relieved that at this mid-point in the semester, professors too are scrambling!

The sermon has two parts, not three. First, after the awesome Church-Wide Assembly (CWA), today I praise God for the ELCA actions last August. Second, I relate this to our lectionary text in Mark 10.

A. First, praising God for the ELCA innovations last August.

Hymns in the New Testament are all Christological, except one, Ephesians 2, which is ecclesiological, praising the church. The 2009 ELCA CWA did something like Ephesians praises. My teacher, Ernst Käsemann, did not like Ephesians, since it is so Roman Catholic, so ecclesiological. But when the church does something so spectacular as uniting Jews and Gentiles, straights and gays, it deserves praise!

One of the thousand voting delegates in Minneapolis proposed that we pray every 20 minutes. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson responded by saying that it would not be appropriate for the Assembly to vote on praying, so he simply arranged for such prayer. Every twenty minutes we paused and prayed for God’s Spirit to move among us. We also worshipped together each day just before we shared lunch, which included hearing the liturgy chanted in Chinese and Arabic, utterly beautiful! Voting delegates from all across the USA, representing millions of members in the ELCA, worshipped and prayed together, and then we saw and felt God’s Spirit moving among us!

You will probably know that the ELCA Social Statement on “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” required a 2/3 majority to pass. It came up for discussion and debate on Wednesday, Aug 19. Voting delegates, went to green and red microphones, and when recognized by Bishop Hanson, argued their case, sometimes citing the Bible and the creeds. We saw bishops repeatedly arguing against each other at those green and red mikes. Then we would go to worship and lunch together. I happened to have the blessing of eating lunch with the bishop who was arguing most often at one of the red mikes (SW Pennsylvania); his assistant, Sarah Lee-Faulkner, is a graduate of PLTS.

Finally late Wednesday, the question was called. Voting delegates had electronic devices with Yes and No buttons; they would vote, and when Bishop Hanson chose, we could see the results. After this crucial vote, he paused, asked for the vote to be displayed, and we saw the figure: 66.67%, precisely 2/3. Those of us in that large convention hall sat in stunned silence. If one of those more than a thousand delegates had changed their vote, the Social Statement would not have passed. Later we also learned that 21 delegates had not voted. Maybe they went to the bathroom at the wrong time. Astounding, precisely 2/3 approved.

Earlier that Wednesday, Bishop Hanson had announced a second awesome event: a tornado was passing over Minneapolis, and that the safest place for us was in that large hall in the Convention Center. He kept giving us updates, and we eventually learned that a tornado had indeed touched down just next door to us, that it had removed items from the roof of Central Lutheran Church next door, along with some temporary tents that had been set up for delegates to have early morning coffee.

Third, that same evening, those who wanted to celebrate the passage of the Social Statement went next door to that same Central Lutheran Church to worship. The Rev. Barbara Lundblad, professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, preached. Long before, she had chosen the lectionary text, Mark 4.35–41, Jesus in a boat when “a great windstorm arose” (4.37)! Three awesome events in one day: a tornado, passage of an innovative social statement by precisely the required 2/3, and Rev. Lundblad’s sermon on an utterly appropriate, inspiring text.

I stand amazed, and today in worship, I praise God for the Spirit moving the ELCA through our elected voting delegates, for the patience and leadership of our presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson, and for the members of the panel who proposed that Social Statement. I am utterly grateful for having been sent by President Phyllis Anderson as the delegate with voice not vote from PLTS to this historic assembly.

B. Mark 10.35–45 (1)

Mark was written in Galilee under the Roman empire, and one purpose of the gospel is to show that any attempt to dominate others by force—either by Rome or by the Judean high priests installed in government by Rome— was contrary to values God calls for from people in the rule of God (Rhoads 61, 145). Disciples are to be servants, unlike leaders of Gentile nations, that is Rome, who lord it over people.

Mark 10:42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.

Mark 10:43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,

Mark 10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Mark 10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. ”

Our lectionary text today immediately follows Jesus’ third prophecy of his passion, that he would be handed over to these “Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (Mk 10.34).

In colonial situation such as Judea under Rome, all are afraid, and there is much death. How does one reverse oppression? (Rhoads 54) How break the grip of self-orientation, of anxious self-preservation? In colonial Iraq or Afghanistan or Zimbabwe or Georgia, or indeed, in the first world, in our United States?

According to David Rhoads we are 1) invited to receive God’s kingdom as a child (10.15), and 2) to see the world upside down, a fundamental change of perception, a vision large enough to live and die for. 3) Then we are empowered to live for God in spite of fear.

One of Rhoads most important conclusions is that Jesus is not a heroic figure, but faithful. Jesus is afraid, as we see in Gethsemane. He does not want to die, yet is willing to do what God wills, to remain faithful to the good news, despite the cost (14.36; Rhoads 56).

In Mark Jesus does not die so that sins will be forgiven, an incorrect interpretation of 10.45. He offers forgiveness apart from his death (2.5). Rather his faithfulness in face of execution liberates others from the grip of self-preservation. We hearers are encouraged to proclaim good news and bring kingdom NOW, despite past failures and ongoing persecution (Rhoads 59).

Mark leads us not so much to believe something about Jesus as to be like Jesus (Rhoads 57). Jesus is the primary example (Rhoads 51) of living for others. He does not value suffering itself; nor does God want people to suffer due to illness, evil forces (demonic possession), or due to nature. Jesus does not call people to suffer in behalf of people in position of power over them. He does not tell slaves that enforced service is the rule of God (8.35). There are no household codes in the gospels!

Jesus empowers us by purging us of fear (Rhoads 57). God’s kingdom has begun (1.15): followers are to cross boundaries to proclaim good news to the ends of the earth (13.10, 27). This supports a social organization very different from John’s gospel. Instead of tight knit group isolated from world, as in John, Mark depicts a loose-knit social network based on hospitality as disciples go from place to place proclaiming the gospel (1.17; 6.7–13; 10.29–30) (Rhoads 149).

Many of God’s people in Palestine were concerned to preserve their holiness, avoiding contact with unclean people and things, lepers, menstruating women, corpses, and Gentiles (Rhoads 155). By contrast, the Jewish Jesus makes an onslaught against these rules and regulations. The Markan Jesus transgresses boundaries of purity (Rhoads 159–60).

God does not withdraw because of a threat of defilement. Rather God’s holiness is an active force that expands and invades in order to remove and overcome uncleanness (Rhoads 168).

Conclusions

I suggest that the two parts of this sermon are related. An institution, the ELCA had faith, not fear! Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that this is not supposed to happen. Individuals, he observed, are more moral than institutions. Furthermore, the ELCA action at Church Wide is unlike Jesus’ disciples in Mark, who never understand Jesus, who consistently respond with fear, not faith.

Many questions were asked in Minneapolis, for days on end. Some of the questions do not have answers. For example, many states do not legally recognize gay or lesbian marriages/partnerships. How will the ELCA recognize such marriages/partnerships in states where such unions are not legal? That question does not yet have an answer. It is a good thing that the Rev. Stanley Olson, Executive Director for Vocation and Education, has a reassuring presence. His calming presence reassured people during the Church Wide Assembly, when there were no answers!

Later, because I am on the steering committee of the ELCA Teaching Theologians, I was talking to the Rev. Jonathan Strandjord, Director for Theological Education, Vocation and Education, a position that Phyllis Anderson used to hold. He reported, “all items in the ELCA budget have parentheses around them! ” In our capitalist society, our church is willing to go into the future with evangelical actions, knowing that the budget will be affected negatively!

Worshiping at Central Lutheran, that Wednesday, August 19, I happened to sit beside Steve Kraefting of Lutherans Concerned, San Francisco. During worship, I leaned over to him and asked, “Did you really believe this could happen? ” “Yes, ” Steve replied, “God, you know. ”

Faithful, local pastors and faithful, ordinary church members voted at the 2009 ELCA CWA. Pastors preached Sunday after Sunday, celebrated the sacraments, taught Bible classes, participated in social actions to which they were called, faithfully, year after year. Then pastors, members, bishops met at CWA 2009, debated, and calmly, quietly voted to turn the world upside down.

May God be praised!

(1) These remarks on Mark are inspired by David Rhoads, Reading Mark: Engaging the Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), esp. chap. 3, “Losing Life for Others in the Face of Death: Mark’s Standards of Judgment, ” and chap. 6, “Crossing Boundaries: Purity and Defilement. ”

(2) For an emphasis on pastors and all believers faithfully following God’s call year after year, see Sarah Coakley, “Deepening Practices: Perspectives from Ascetical and Mystical Theology, ” pp. 78–93 in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, eds. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), citing books by the Anglican parish priest W. H. Vanston, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (1977), The Stature of Waiting (1982), and Farewell in Christ (1997).