Please God by loving one another

by Dan Collison

Given the historic significance of this topic, Pietisten is reprinting this abbreviated version of the sermon as a means of continuing the conversation about human sexuality and the ecclesiology of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

From a sermon preached in the First Covenant Church of Minneapolis in June, 2018.

Text: 1 Thess. 4:1-12

Fearless Girl is a bronze sculpture by artist Kristen Visbal depicting a girl facing the Charging Bull statue on Wall Street. It was installed in March 2017 in the financial district of Manhattan and was an immediate sensation and controversy. It was a controversy because it was installed under cover of night by an investment firm seeking to pressure 787 companies in the United States, Britain and Australia to add women to their 787 exclusively male boards. It was a sensation because 152 of those companies actually did add women to their boards and throngs of people took selfies with the Fearless Girl because of its juxtaposition with the 11-foot-tall, 7,100-pound statue, which Italian sculptor Arturo Di-Modica created as a symbol of American financial resilience following the 1987 stock market crash.

The Fearless Girl statue is set to be moved three blocks away to stand in front of the New York Stock Exchange by the end of 2018. City leadership is signaling that the Fearless Girl and the Charging Bull belong together permanently. Along with the #MeToo movement, this is a telling moment for the advancement of women and women’s rights in our society. It is the clarity and courage of women and men that make such moments of transformational change possible.

We are in our third week of a six-week teaching series on the letters of Paul. We have chosen to look at these shorter letters through the creative lens of “church is a verb” because Paul’s choice of words included “the Gospel coming not in word only, but with full conviction…remembering shared labor and toil…admonish idlers…rejoice always…pray without ceasing…don’t repay evil for evil”…and so on. The language is charged with action.

Today’s Scripture is a mirror of Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God and one another. Paul interwove the two such that they almost are indistinguishable, leading us to believe that we please God when we love one another. Even more, we were created to love one another and it is our sin, and our fears, and our disrespect and our coercions that erode our love for one another.

So what does today’s Scripture and the Fearless Girl and Charging Bull have to do with one another? Everything, if we bring together Paul’s admonitions to the early church, 2,000 years of Christians struggling over human identity exclusions and inclusions, and all that has happened over the last few months in this very community. A few months ago this community released a ministry direction statement that is both Covenant and disagrees with one policy topic developed by the Covenant denomination in the 1990s as to how ordained pastors and churches are to ethically abide by this policy statement regarding human sexuality:

“Faithfulness in heterosexual marriage, celibacy in singleness — these constitute the Christian standard. When we fall short, we are invited to repent, receive the forgiveness of God, and amend our lives.”

Over time more layers of policy were developed that say that Covenant pastors are not permitted to officiate or pray at same-sex unions and that, “Congregations should have a facilities use policy in keeping with ECC guidelines and they respectfully expect that the policy include, church facilities not be used for same-sex-ceremonies, unions, blessings, and all related events.”

The Evangelical Covenant Church is an association of about 850 independent and congregationally organized churches who seek to be collegial and connected. This larger association is divided into 11 regional conferences. Our local church is part of the Northwest Conference that includes about 140 churches in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and half of Wisconsin. In contrast to the organizational structure of many Protestant denominations to their local churches, in the Covenant all local churches own their own property, call their own pastors, and following their own unique constitutions and bylaws, elect leaders and have final say on all local congregational matters.

This historic Covenant congregation was birthed in 1874, eleven years before the larger denomination was organized and we opened the Swedish Tabernacle building in 1887. Over several years of studying Scripture, the Covenant tradition and larger Christian traditions, discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit, and learning from the stories and witness of our LGBTQ members and staff, we as a local Covenant church have discerned that the larger sacred human rights conversations about sexual orientation and identity and the Christian movement need to be thoughtfully engaged with a posture more inclusive than the current position of the Covenant. There are several other Covenant pastors and churches in similar places as us and who have also released statements on inclusion.

Our own ministry statement can be downloaded from our website and is neither long, nor a very complicated document. After describing our theological moorings and commitments the document simply says that everyone is treated equally in our community and with the same levels of pastoral care whether cis-gendered, transgendered, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or heterosexual. The same Christian standards are for everyone and on the basis of equal standing before one another and before the Creator of all things.

Because of this inclusive posture, our new ministry statement, and several years of disagreement, on May 17 the elected leaders of the Covenant denomination suspended my ministry license and the local Executive Board of the Northwest Conference initiated

an “out of harmony” process with the signatures of 27 pastors (none having contacted us for conversation) calling for action against us as a church. Our leadership team and many Covenant advocates for First Covenant are now actively reaching out to these 27 pastors and the Northwest Conference Executive Board to have conversations and do our best to continue to build bridges of understanding between us.

I’ll admit, the gap between us is wide in some cases. And, like the Fearless Girl being placed in front of the Charging Bull — two statues created at different moments of time for different purposes and now paradoxically linked where there is a power differential and yet both belong together — the leadership of First Covenant Church, on the basis of Covenant polity and practice, immediately licensed me as the senior pastor of First Covenant Church saying to the elected leaders of the denomination (in part):

“We respectfully disagree with this letter of suspension in the strongest terms. We believe our position, as described in our statement (“How we live together well and what it means to ‘love all’”) reflects the love of the One who first loved us. We hold it humbly, but comfortably, and believe it fits the Covenant’s long history of unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things. Additionally, we are grieved that the Board of Ordered Ministry has chosen to pursue this punitive action. We believe this to be an unprecedented move in the history of the Evangelical Covenant Church. We continue to be an Evangelical Covenant congregation, and we will continue to have Pastor Dan Collison serve as our Lead Pastor. We have locally licensed him, and will fully support him as he continues to minister with and to our community.”

And, in response to the initiating of an “out of harmony” process, Carina Aleckson, chair of the leadership team, wrote (in part):

“The preface to the 1973 Covenant Hymnal acknowledges that the committee ‘reaffirmed the principle of freedom by refusing to move in the direction of liturgical uniformity.’ Instead, it offers various materials to help local congregations cultivate patterns of worship that edify the whole body. They outline their balance of historic and contemporary influences, how music was re-harmonized for sing-a-bility, and the intention to offer repeated tunes in multiple keys. Descants were added as ways to embellish familiar songs.

There are many types of harmony, and within the largeness of the Covenant,

First Covenant’s ‘Love All’ statement is, perhaps, a descant—something that embellishes. While it is very important for our ministry at First Covenant Minneapolis, it was never envisioned as a document for other churches or congregations to endorse or adopt. It is the result of many congregational conversations that took place over nearly a year—or longer, if prior conversations are also included.

Not all of us at First Covenant have long personal or familial ties to the Covenant, though some do. All of us do believe in the best of what the Covenant has historically offered: unity in essential matters of faith, freedom in non-salvific matters (things that are in the Bible, but not related to one’s salvation), and charity in all things. We did not go looking for this fight; in the course of seeking to do our best ministry in our local church, we felt that being clear in our intentions was critical. We have repeatedly requested—in alignment with Covenant historic ways of navigating sensitive, non-salvific matters—to be allowed to abide.”

I share this level of detail here today because there is much to be aware of, and grateful for, in this moment. As our unfolding Covenant congregational story continues in the days ahead, we have reason for hope and we are invited to learn anew how to love those with whom we disagree. That is my first point of emphasis that interacts with today’s Scripture: real love for one another is learned.

Real Love is Learned

The Apostle Paul begins today’s text saying that Christ-followers are to live to please God by being monogamous in our sexuality, learn how to control our bodies with honor, and to never wrong or exploit another person. This is straightforward and yet these are things we need to commit ourselves to being mindful about in the complexity of our day to day lives. As sexual beings we will be attracted to people other than our “one and onlys.” It is a universal truth beyond Christian religious tradition — if you cheat on the one you are committed to, it will break your relationship, sometimes beyond the point of repair.

It is also a Christian and basic universal truth that everyone is created with sacred identity and to bring intentional harm to another creation of God is to offend God. This is at the crux of the sexual identity debate. One side considers anything other than heterosexuality as an affront to God based upon seven passages of Scripture and religious tradition. On the other side, and particularly those who are family and friends with LGBTQ individuals, LGBTQ is simply a variation as with many other variations that occur in creation, and because they are a persecuted small percentage of people it honors our Christian ethics of compassion, mercy, and justice to protect their well-being and advocate for equality. One side feels the need to protect God and the other side to protect their loved ones.

We need to recognize that while Jesus never discussed the topic, Paul, like Moses before him, included prohibitions on same sex-sexual expression in other texts. Today’s Scripture gives those on both sides the opportunity to find a way forward together even as we have found a way forward and beyond Moses’ and Paul’s and other traditional views concerning matters of race and gender over the last several hundred years. The key to finding a way through is this: “Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” (1 Thess. 4:9)

It is likely that Paul was referring to both the teachings of Jesus and the inward action of the Holy Spirit of God in everyone. Our reading and study of the Bible will lead us to conclusions about theologies and theories about God, creation, humanity, sin, and so on. But, in arriving at those conclusions, Christ-followers need to rivet themselves to Jesus and his teachings, and hold our conclusions with humility. Jesus’ teaching is center and gives us room to disagree and yet remain together. Love for one another fueled by the Spirit will create authentic relationships between us, in spite of disagreements.

As a related aside: Part of having your ministry license suspended includes having to call your mother! And my mother holds different opinions than I do about LGBTQ matters. But in our phone call she didn’t hesitate in saying, “I know your heart, Dan. I know your love for Jesus and whenever a question arises you always fall on the side of grace and love.” And, when we discussed how families separate over this matter she said, “oh, that’s not us…we are family. I love you! And, I am looking forward to our time at the Minnesota State Fair in August. We can go for two days, right?”

This is the kind of Christian witness that will heal wounds and move us forward in our relationships with one another in the midst of disagreements.

Real Love Includes Real Relationships

One of the most compelling aspects of the historic Covenant tradition, and that which can offer us all great help in this moment, is to live according to pietistic Christian practice. Pietism places its focus on a way of life more than a system of beliefs or doctrines. It’s less about what we think about God, and more about how we relate to God and what we do in God’s name. The Covenant denomination’s connection to Pietism goes back to the 1600s. Pietism was born out of the bloody conflict of the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants from 1618 to 1648. This conflict was as much about monarchical power as religious theological disputations, but one key outcome was the rise of a collective skeptical consciousness that could not square brutality with the name of Christ, as recently pointed out in an article by North Park Seminary professor, John E. Phelan Jr.

Philipp Jakob Spener, born in the midst of this war, came to insist that a life of practical Christianity was more important than the constant engagement in “theological disputation.” Spener and his followers promoted small group Bible studies, the development of lay ministry, simple direct preaching, and a refusal to engage in theological knife fighting.

The Covenant denomination must reflect deeply upon our pietistic roots as we are confronted by our disagreements over the identity of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Paul’s final point in today’s text: “But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:10-12).

A key way for Covenanters to understand our differences and leverage our affirmation of “freedom in Christ” is to allow individual congregations to discern the best ways to minister to the people and communities around them. To this point, the elected leadership of the Covenant denomination has been signaling that they are not willing to permit this approach. This June, the struggle for Covenant pastors and churches who seek to be inclusive within the context of their ministries is being placed front and center at the Annual Meeting of the Covenant in downtown Minneapolis.

Real Love is Hard Work

Real love is actually really hard work. In reflection on my cross-sector work in the city and as a Covenant pastor, most days I feel torn by competing generations, businesses and brands, political parties, and as we move into this very unique month of June — Covenanters taking sides. I can’t stand it, and yet, I can’t change it. I have had my Covenant credentials suspended for disagreeing with a denominational position statement on a debatable issue. At the urging of several hundred ordained Covenant pastors, I chose to move forward not as a “conscientious objector” but as a “conscientious cooperator.” I know that may sound trite, but I really mean it.

I will seek to view elected Covenant leaders as my colleagues, even if some don’t return that sentiment. To this point in the denomination’s history it has been normative for pastors and churches to agree on our six affirmations and have room to disagree on stated positions.

I love one particular photo of the Fearless Girl and the Charging Bull. More than most other photos it seems to show the bull more in relationship with the girl than in opposition to the girl. Almost a dance of sorts. A very serious one to be sure! And, yet one in which a paradoxical balance needs to be maintained for both to have their place in our world.

In whatever way each of us understands these statues and their photographs — or this important moment in the life of our congregation — may all of us, in light of today’s Scripture, know that we’re created to love one another, real love has to be learned, and on most days, while it’s hard work, it’s always worth it.

God of all creation, Christ, our all in all, Spirit, who imbues us with power—we seek to be grounded in this highly unusual moment. Help us to love all. Help us to embody and lead in the best ways that our Christian tradition teaches us to love and remain despite our disagreements.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.