Sermon from August 11, 2019: Reflections on the ELCA Churchwide Assembly

Dear friends in Christ: grace and peace to you from God our Creator, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, who sends us out. Amen.

I spent last week at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Churchwide Assembly. This is a gathering of around 1000 ELCA voting delegates from across the country that happens every three years. We met from Monday until yesterday to discuss and vote on legislation and hold important elections of leadership positions. A few notes on the elections:

The first election was for the role of Presiding Bishop of the ELCA. Current Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has served for 1 six-year term, and at the Assembly she was reelected on the first ballot with around 80% of the vote. This, I believe, is unprecedented in the ELCA. If you don’t know Bishop Eaton, please look for her writings and videos on the ELCA website and publications. She is a wonderful bishop and I love her.

The ELCA Secretary position was also up for election as the current Secretary, Secretary Boerger, is retiring. Deacon Sue Rothmeyer was elected as the next Secretary of the ELCA. She’s the current executive for administration with the Office of the Secretary and she will do a great job.

We also discussed and passed social statements, resolutions and memorials. It’s most helpful if we can take time to read them together, ask questions, and have discussion about them. We will provide these opportunities in the coming weeks and months. Please look for Bishop Patricia Lull’s reflections that she will publish in the coming days.

Rather, this morning I want to share my personal highlight from the Churchwide Assembly. On Friday, the ELCA kicked off a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first women to be ordained in a Lutheran body in North America, the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first women of color in a Lutheran body in North America, and the 10th anniversary of the ordination of our LGBTQIA+ siblings in Christ in the ELCA.

Elizabeth Platz
At a banquet on Friday evening, we heard from Rev. Elizabeth Platz, the first woman ordained in 1970.

A procession of women ordained into Word and Sacrament ministry (or pastors) was held at the beginning of the worship that morning. I don’t know exactly how many women processed, but it felt like there were hundreds of us.

Assembly Procession Selfie

Bishop Lull
St. Paul Area Synod Bishop Lull taking a selfie as we lined up for the procession. (Photo by Pastor Jen Collins)
Jen Collins and Me
Photo by Pastor Jen Collins

I can’t fully describe how powerful it was for me, in that moment, to simply be celebrated as an ordained woman. For my entire career, I’ve had to fight the feeling that I’m ordained in spite of my gender rather than because of it. When I entered that worship space, processing beside so many women who paved the way for me and holding the many women pastors in my heart who weren’t at the Assembly, I was overcome. It was a true celebration: people were clapping, cheering, and taking photos and videos. Men were watching the procession with tears streaming down their faces. As Pastor Heidi Heimgartner later commented on one of my enthusiastic posts about it on Facebook: “On Friday, I kept saying, I didn’t know how much I needed that til today.”

20 years ago this summer I was beginning my seminary education. 15 years ago on July 31st I was ordained.

In my very first preaching class 20 years ago, the students took turns reading Scripture out loud and giving each other feedback. After I read my assigned Scripture, an older man said to me, “I can’t take Scripture seriously when you read it because you sound like a little girl.” This was my peer in seminary.

And if you think this is unusual or old news, just a couple of months ago I led a worship service at a local care center. After the service a woman approached me and said, “People are going to stop coming to your worship services because they can’t hear you. Your voice is too high and it’s frustrating for them.”

For 20 years, as an ordained woman, people have been continually telling me that my voice is a problem.

I wonder at times if my gender is holding this congregation back from potential growth. There are people who don’t come to Christ the King because the pastors here are women. And for a long time it was just me. How many people and families avoid this church because there isn’t a male pastor? Who are you all losing out on because you choose to have me in leadership?

But–I’ve learned a lot over the years. We often come up with good comebacks in hindsight, right?

If I could go back 20 years ago and respond to the man in my seminary preaching class, I would say this: “What is wrong with hearing Scripture read by a little girl? Isn’t that a wonderful thing? Don’t little girls’ voices give us a lovely perspective? Don’t we want to encourage our girls to read it in our congregations?”

If I could go back and respond to the woman at the care center, I would say: “My voice isn’t the problem. You need a better sound system so people can hear me!”

 My voice is a GIFT.

And when I think about people who miss out on this wonderful congregation because you’ve chosen me as your pastor, I remind myself about the little girls in this church who come every Sunday and hear a voice like theirs from the pulpit. There are little girls who, every Sunday, see themselves represented up front and have never known anything different. They will change the world.

I think of all the little boys in this congregation who have only heard a female voice preach every Sunday. What a gift to raise boys who know and appreciate women in leadership, and who have never known anything different. They will change the world.

I’m here because of my gender. I wouldn’t be the pastor I am if I weren’t a women–with all its gifts and joys.

I’d like to end with a video of the procession, so you can experience it a bit for yourselves.

Thanks be to God for all who lead this church, for the gifts we all bring, and for all of you: who continually lift up my gifts and support me in countless ways. I wouldn’t be the leader I am without your confidence in me and the ways you celebrate me. Amen!

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