Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Vanity of vanities. . .
So, quite apart from the content of what was said, the venue of a recent ELCA bishop's coming out sermon cannot be avoided. At least in the pulpit it should be about the Word of the Lord but it seems even there some of us preachers cannot avoid making it all about me. At the ELCA National Youth Gathering on Saturday, July 18, Bishop Kanouse was preaching to the North Texas and North Louisiana youth and adult leaders gathered there (approximately 400 or so). In the midst of a sermon on Jesus healing a paralytic, Bishop Kanouse turned the sermon into a coming out address and admitted that he had been a closeted homosexual for 40 years.
Later Kanouse recounted the experience in a letter to his synod in which he wrote that after hearing the emotional stories recounted by young people at the conference, concerning the role of God in their lives, he was “Holy Spirit-moved to tell my own story publicly, for the first time.” As a young man, Kanouse said he knew he was gay but “buried it deep” because of the antigay bigotry and the idea that “homosexuality was a sin” from his conservative upbringing in Pennsylvania.
“I learned early on that I had to hide my true nature ... especially because I wanted to be a pastor and serve in the church,” he said. “After all, pastors could not be gay and serve Jesus.” His experience as a closeted gay man and Lutheran pastor was liberating and stifling, according to Kanouse. It should be noted that is married to his wife of over 40 years and the father of two sons.
Whether or not you find the Bishop's admission heroic or disgusting, the point here is the venue. In a sermon the Bishop turned the attention away from Jesus and onto himself. He became the one and only thing that anyone will remember about his preaching. He was a closeted gay man who deceived his wife and his church and everyone else for more than 40 years. But instead of repenting of his stealing of the pulpit for his own purpose, the Bishop repented of voting against the homosexual policies of the ELCA recognizing same sex relationships, marriage, and clergy. Again, he made it all about himself. Perhaps some will think this noble of him but I am shocked and saddened every time the pulpit is hijacked for another purpose than speaking the Word of the Lord to the people of God. Perhaps we have become so accustomed to this that we no longer notice when the word of man is substituted for the Word of the Lord, when the Law and Gospel are sidelined from the sermon, and when preacher and people would rather hear a compelling personal story than the story of the cross and empty tomb. But that does not make it right.
According to the Bishop: I was moved to share my journey with the youth because I know many are struggling with these and other issues of self-esteem, rejection, and self-loathing. I wanted to instill the hope of the Gospel among youth who are defining themselves. In these two sentences the Bishop has hit upon the crux of the matter. who define themselves. We do NOT define ourselves but God defines us. He has placed His Word within us in the voice of our conscience. He has connected us to Christ, to His cross, and to His death so that we are new people in baptism, created in Christ Jesus for good works. We do not define ourselves but come to know who we are by what God has done. He is the one who enables us to renounce sin and unrighteousness even when its voice and desire are more familiar to us than the voice of God and the new desire born of our baptismal death and resurrection with Christ and into Christ.
My journey, the Bishop's journey, and the journey of our youth are not the subject of faithful preaching but the object. Christ is the subject and the object is lives of faith, obedience, and holiness in response to this Gospel and under the power of the Spirit. The Bishop may have had noble intention but no intention can justify the misuse of the pulpit and the sidetracking of the faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified by our own stories (no matter how compelling or interesting or heart wrenching). Preaching is where the church first begins to fail, where our stories are equated with THE story of Christ, where opinion trumps fact and truth, and where we are set adrift on a sea of sentiment. So preaching must be held to the highest standards and the preacher judged according to this high standard. Words come and go and stories are told and forgotten but the Word of the Lord endures forever. The Bishop's story was no substitute for faithful preaching of the Word. He became the center of his sermon and that is a fail on every scale of faithfulness.