Updated: May 31, 2018
St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church
preached by Pastor Peter Beeson
Want to hear the audio version? Listen to it here.
Over the past few weeks numerous Lutheran congregations around the country have gathered together with other churches in their geographic area for their annual business meetings.
During these gatherings, referred to as synod assemblies, budgets have been passed, motions ratified, and ministries affirmed. At these annual gatherings bishops are elected, as each synod, or geographical area of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our branch of Christianity, elects leaders to move us forward with doing God’s mission in the world.
For those of you who are not church nerds, (Smile) the ELCA, our denomination, is the whitest mainline Christian denomination in the United States, with 96% of our members and leadership being Caucasian. Of the sixty five bishops, that serve the sixty five synods across this country, only 13% are women.
It is in this environment, with 96% of our people being white, and 13% of our bishops being women, that two African American women were elected in the Southeastern Pennsylvania and South-Central Wisconsin synods to serve as their bishops for the next six years. (Applause)
Those two women, the Rev. Patricia Davenport and the Rev. Vivian Thomas-Breitfeld bring many years of experience in our church.
This is a joyous day, celebrating the long fought battle led by women, particularly women of color in our church.
It is also interesting to note their election because it highlights the anxiety and fragility of our institutional church systems. (PAUSE)
A few years ago Forbes Magazine featured an article about the glass cliff women in leadership face. In their research, done back in 2015, the authors found that organizations in crisis have a much higher tendency to call women into leadership.
There are many hypotheses as to why that is, however the fact that it happens remains undisputed. In those companies that hire or call women, if miracles don’t occur and success doesn’t happen, those women in leadership are turned on more quickly and attacked more ferociously than a man normally would be.
This year, two women serving at an ELCA institution experienced the glass cliff.
The Rev. Dr. Theresa Latini and the Rev. Dr. Elise Brown, the president and chair of the board, respectively, of United Lutheran Seminary, a combined seminary made up of a very new merger between Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia and the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, two white middle age women, both women with long histories of advocating for women and the LGBT community, and excellent leaders in their own fields, were unceremoniously removed from their offices, after an outcry arose among the student body. The reason given for their departure was a revelation that Theresa Latini, the seminary president, had been involved in leading an ex-gay group two decades earlier. (PAUSE) (BREATHE)
For those of you who are unaware, the ex-gay movement or conversion therapy argues that people who are gay or lesbian, queer, trans, etc. can change our sexual orientation or gender identity by a variety of methodologies. It has been proven to be invalid and as someone who has experienced it, it is deeply damaging.
With that said, how many of us have never done something incredibly stupid and destructive 20 years ago when we were in college?
Can I get a show of hands? You have never done anything in your life you have ever regretted? (Laughter) Anyone?
All right, so we're all on the same page, sinners and saints, the joy of being Lutheran.
As this situation unraveled, it became pretty obvious that there were a whole bunch of other factors and power dynamics playing into these two women being fired. And the LGBT student group on campus, which was rightfully upset, was being used and manipulated by other people in power for all sorts of reasons related to historic tensions that led two different Lutheran seminaries to both exist in one state when we only have 10 spread across the country.
Rather than practicing forgiveness, acting with compassion, and extending mercy – remembering the damaging, hurtful, destructive things all of us have done in our past – the established people in power acted in ways to foster chaos and destruction and derail the progress that had been made at the newly forming, very fragile, United Lutheran Seminary. These two women, white, middle-aged, straight identified, who have arrived at the pinnacle of power in the church, found themselves vilified and under constant demonic attack. (PAUSE) (BREATHE)
You might find it interesting that I say, "demonic attack" because we don't use that language a lot in the ELCA. But as an evangelical that is common language in my world. And for Martin Lutheran living back 501 years ago, that was pretty common language in his world.
So rather than these two women who had made a mistake, but an understandable one, being protected by the people they had sought to protect, and shepherd, and mentor and raise up over their many years long careers, they were rejected, ignored, and sacrificed, by people who they had sought to protect.
Father, protect them, (BREATHE)
Jesus prayed that three different times in our gospel for today. Three times Jesus prayed begging for God to protect his followers, and that protection isn't against death, because if you look back to the history of the early church almost all of the disciples, all of the apostles, and a whole bunch of the early Christians were murdered pretty violently. But that protection was for the souls and spirits of Jesus' followers who were about to be under mighty and terrible spiritual attack. (PAUSE)
Demons don’t work in the abstract. Demons work through the words and actions of those who seek to sow discord and undermine God’s plan. For women called into leadership, for women who have broken through the glass ceiling only to be faced with the glass cliff, women are frequently in a place to be undermined by straight, white, men. Men who have professed to be their allies, who have told them to their face that they have their back. That is not to say all straight white men are evil. Many of you in this church, many men around the world are good. It is to say that people who have profited from the status quo, people who seek to maintain the power they have been given irrespective of God's call, people to seek to hold on to what we have, are likely to fight against new things that happen. It is to say demons can work through all of us and lead us to attack and undermine the work God is still doing in our world.
Dear People of God, that is where prayer comes in.
Here's another term that's not very Lutheran but it is a term I was brought up with. And that's the term of prayer warriors, because in the evangelical church we still believe that prayer works and prayer matters.
Francisco Herrera, one of the founders of Decolonize Lutheranism, the sponsors of the anti-racism conference I went to in Chicago a few weeks ago, challenged our churches to pray for these two new African American bishops, bishops who both wear the mantel of being black in a church that is 96% white and who are female in a church were only 13% of our senior leaders are women. As white women can tell you just having one of those marks makes it pretty hard to be in leadership in the church.
(wooden crosses - prayers and blessings for the bishops - green cards)
Let us pray: "Praying that God give you the encouragement and strength you need for today."