“Have No Fear”: A Sermon after Churchwide Assembly 2019

Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
11 August 2019 + Lectionary 19C
Luke 12.32-40
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Elizabeth Platz. Earlean Miller? Ruth Frost? Phyllis Zillhart? Let’s try an easier one: Elizabeth Eaton?

What all of these women share in common is that they’re ordained Lutheran pastors—a phenomenon which, I must confess, is a relatively recent one in the larger history of the Lutheran church.

As members from across our denomination, myself included, met in Milwaukee these past several days for the triennial Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women—starting on November 22, 1970, when Pastor Elizabeth Platz became the first woman to be ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in any Lutheran church body in North America.

It’s no small thing to be the first one to break the stained glass ceiling, and I can’t help but wonder what that experience must’ve felt like. Excited? Nervous? Afraid? Probably a little bit of all of the above. After all, it was a prophetic yet controversial move—one most certainly met with sexism and rejection and challenges.

It would then be another ten years before the first woman of African descent, Pastor Earlean Miller, would be ordained. If it was hard enough to be a woman in ministry in those early days, it was even harder to be a person of color. In many ways, it still is.

More recently, in 2013, Pastor Elizabeth Eaton would become the first woman to be elected Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, and to be re-elected to a second term just this past week. This year, we even elected the first woman and first deacon to the Office of Secretary of the ELCA.

Many other names of “firsts” could be added: the first Latina woman pastor, the first woman elected as a synodical bishop, and the first of two women of color elected as synodical bishops in the same weekend, including Brookfield’s own Pastor Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld.

From Elizabeth Platz to Elizabeth Eaton and everyone in between and everyone who has followed and will yet follow, I stand with gratitude for their ministry and in awe of their resilience. In the face of sexism, racism, and discrimination, they would have had every reason to be afraid. It would have been a lot easier to give in to that fear and to give up on God’s call.

They had every reason to be afraid. But they persisted.

Which brings us to our gospel text, using the translation from the beloved hymn text: Have no fear, little flock, for the Father has chosen to give you the kingdom.

This is about God and God’s promise to us. As one biblical scholar (Matt Skinner) writes, God eagerly wants the “kingdom”—one of the bible’s keywords for this new way of life that reflects God’s vision of justice and peace for the sake of human flourishing—to happen now. This is the kingdom announced by Jesus earlier in Luke’s gospel when he declares in his hometown synagogue words that have come to be considered Jesus’s “mission statement”:

The Spirit of God is upon me,
because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of our God’s favor.

Which he follows up with the mic drop: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Good news. Release. Recovery. Liberation. Proclamation. This is the kingdom promised by God. This is the way of life that is happening today, breaking into our midst even now.

Have no fear, little flock, for the Father has chosen to give you the kingdom.

This verse kept replaying itself in my mind in the days before Churchwide Assembly as I gathered in a different space with a different community—the annual Proclaim Gathering, part of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, made up of openly LGBTQIA+ Lutheran pastors, deacons, seminarians, and candidates awaiting first call.

Alongside the first women ordained as pastors and consecrated as bishops, the Proclaim community is made up of people who should have had every reason to be afraid, every reason to give in to fear, every reason to give up, in the face of discrimination and rejection. But this is a community that also persists.

In addition to the anniversaries of women’s ordination, our Churchwide Assembly also remembered the more recent anniversary of the ordination of LGBTQIA+ pastors. Officially, the ELCA started ordaining us in 2009, only ten years ago. But the “firsts” actually came thirty years ago when Pastors Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson were called to two congregations in San Francisco and ordained “extraordinarily” in 1990. Their calling congregations were promptly suspended from membership in the ELCA, before ultimately being expelled completely. But Ruth, Phyllis, and Jeff persisted. These pastors and so many others stand as witnesses to God’s promise to give us the kingdom.

I share this church history lesson because I think it’s important to remember these milestones and the struggles leading up to them. But I also think the witness of these leaders teaches us an important lesson—a lesson Jesus is teaching his disciples in our gospel text today.

When there is every reason to be afraid, Jesus’s words ring true. The Father has chosen to give us the kingdom. God calls us to this new way of life, and God’s call cannot and will not be stifled by any human-made church policy that has sometimes gotten it wrong. In spite of fear, in spite of the violence and brokenness of our world, as we saw with the recent mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, this is the certain promise of God who gives us the kingdom and promises to be with us.

We are all called into this work of ministry, my friends. We are all called into holy, hard work as the people of God. Our denomination highlighted some of this work in the legislation voting members debated these past several days in Assembly. On Wednesday, the ELCA made history as the first church body to declare itself a “sanctuary denomination” to help protect migrants and refugees seeking asylum from religious, political, and social persecution, even as we continue to grapple with what exactly that means. The next day, the assembly passed a bold declaration to condemn white supremacy and racism, and the day after that, we adopted our newest social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.” These are big things. As Presiding Bishop Eaton said in her sermon this morning at closing worship to those of us at Assembly, “They’ll be some explaining to do when we get home.” And I invite that conversation because it’s too important to ignore. These are things that might make us uncomfortable or uneasy or make us afraid of what it means to live into this work.

But we also do this work knowing that we are church together. This is no one’s work to do alone, but as a community. We can be afraid. We can be uncomfortable. We can even disagree with each other along the way. But we don’t have to let our fear hold us back. For God our Father and Mother and Creator has chosen even us, given even us the kingdom, made even us God’s hands and feet and voice—to preach and to practice a way of love in a world that so desperately needs to receive it.

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