Afflicted in Any Way

(Photo:  Pr. Jeff at the discipline trial after which First United Church was expelled from the ELCA.)  

On October 11th when we commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII at St. Peter’s Basilica, a friend of mine, Austin Newberry, who serves as chaplain to PROCLAIM — “the professional community for Lutheran pastors, rostered lay leaders and seminarians who publicly identify as LGBTQ” –  posted the following on Facebook: 

“The most famous words of Vatican II – from the opening sentence in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World – ‘The joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the women and men of this age, especially the poor and those afflicted in any way, are the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the followers of Jesus Christ.’”

No wonder we remember this Council as the time the windows were thrown open and fresh air circulated throughout the church!  At this time when Roman Catholic nuns facing difficulties from current Vatican administrators, it’s important to immerse ourselves in this sentiment as an amazing and compelling vision for the followers of Jesus ChristClearly, it is not a vision often understood!  I have known many church-affiliated members who wouldn’t understand these words; who have tried their damndest to live a life of faith which has nothing to do with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed; who consider them losers; who have found such associations to be too inconvenient or dreadfully inopportune.  Who knows why we think this way?  Maybe it’s our own affluence and privilege.  Maybe it’s because we have aligned ourselves too closely with power and success to know little if anything of this other vision.

However, I have known others as well, who thanks to faith and context, have aligned themselves  with those “afflicted in any way,” in every way!  And I count it among the greatest blessings of my life to have encountered and learned from those who take these words to heart, dedicating their lives to being in solidarity with and accompaniment alongside those the powerful would rather forget.

Twenty-five years ago I was a senior seminarian certified for ordination in the Lutheran church (ELCA) who had come out with three of my friends as openly gay.  And we too discovered quickly how it was for fellow “followers of Jesus Christ” to turn away and want nothing at all to do with us.  I can still feel, and my body still  remember without much trouble at all the pain of having lived through these experiences.  They were faith destroying, actually, and deeply disorienting.

But when one follower of Jesus Christ, the Rev. John Frykmann and the generous people of First United Lutheran Church took up our cause as theirs and identified closely with us in our struggle against the evils of sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia in our church, I remember being able to find my way again.  They restored my ability to trust; to believe.  Their solidarity with us recreated the confidence I once had in the Gospel itself, and renewed my commitment to it as the singularly most persuasive power and motivator of my life.

For nine years, I was privileged to have served as the pastor of First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco.   We learned much together as we struggled to form “creative, spiritual,” Lutheran community, and to be  creative and compassionate in our work in the world.

Their solidarity cost them their relationship to the denomination.  First United was expelled from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at the end of 1995, and now that the rest of the church has found its welcoming voice (with the policies of discrimination having been rescinded in 2009) this faith-filled community was once again received onto the roster of congregations in a significant liturgy last Sunday, October 14th.

Pastor Nadia Boltz-Webber in a quote Logan posted this afternoon on the Chapel’s Tumblr page writes:  “In the book I just wrote, I talk about how we have two unacceptable options in Christianity right now. We have a strong Christian identity that’s hostile and filled with a lot of hostility, and then we have a weak Christianity that’s very tolerant. But what people are looking for is a strong Christian identity that is more than tolerant, it’s benevolent.”

Benevolent and in solidarity with those afflicted in every way that we might all become more faithful and courageous followers of the one who already has shown us a way around all of those things which hold us in captivity, Jesus the Christ.  Well done First United Lutheran Church!  Welcome to this new relational home you helped to make possible through the actions that got you kicked out — for a time.  I, for one, am thrilled that we are back!