Our Lutheran Heritage, Our Understanding of Stewardship and Dealing with Modernity

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Pentecost 22, October 21, 2018 – Pastor Goede

Fall is the time of year when I think about both stewardship and the Lutheran Reformation. This summer, I got into an interesting discussion I didn’t expect that connected the two things.

At synod assembly, I went to a workshop on the statement about women that our national church, the ELCA, is preparing to make.  You can go online and find dozens of statements that the ELCA has issued over the years on just about any social issue you can imagine. The statements always include insight from our teaching theologians, but they are also the product of lots of discussion in workshops and hearings.

A couple of ELCA staff members walked us through the many parts of the statement. It was mostly what you’d expect of the ELCA, except that I noticed there was one thing that wasn’t included – birth control. Here was a statement about women that did not touch on one of the most important parts of social and family life for both women and men. There was no plan to say anything about an issue that is extremely controversial for most of the world and is still controversial in the United States. It looked like we were not going to make a statement on an issue where Lutherans have a lot to say that is very different from the rest of the religious world.

If you don’t think that birth control is controversial, you may not know that contraceptives were illegal in the United States until after World War II, when some states began to decriminalize their sale. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the government to prohibit married couples from using birth control. But that left 26 states where it was illegal for unmarried couples. So in civil society, legal contraception in wide use is a very new thing.

It’s still controversial for the vast majority of people who are religious in the United States, because now they hear a teaching from their religious leaders that is way out of step with society. Anyone who is a member of a Catholic or Orthodox or evangelical or Pentecostal church, or is Muslim or is an Orthodox Jew, learns that it is a sin to use birth control, yet, many of them do use it. That religious objection to birth control plays out in the lives of non-religious people here in Chicago, where there are still many ob-gyns who will not prescribe pills or do office procedures because of their faith objections. It affects our foreign policy, for instance when aid to poor countries can’t include birth control.

But Lutherans, and other mainline Protestant Christians like Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples, we don’t object to birth control. In fact, we’re in a position to say, you should use birth control as a part of your stewardship of your family and this earth. So how did we get to such a different point as so many other churches and religions in the United States? Did we just cave to social pressure? Or is this a faithful response to a new technology?

Part of it is our Reformation heritage. Martin Luther dove into the letters written by Paul, and he rediscovered some things that had been lost over the centuries. For instance, he rediscovered God to be a gracious creator who cares as much about our lives as our deaths. So Lutherans have always been a church with one foot solidly planted in the spiritual kingdom of God, but the other just as solidly planted on earth. We care about the stewardship of creation because we think that God continues to create, and that creation continues to delight God. We find the spiritual within the earthly world.

Part of that stewardship is caring for our health. I visited Rebekah and Tyler in the hospital a couple of weeks ago to see baby Otto, and I told them that’s one of the joys of being a pastor, visiting new babies and moms and dads. Pastors did that one hundred years ago, too, but they went so that they could baptize dying newborns and comfort grieving husbands whose wives died in childbirth.

In a time when most of us have not known anyone personally who died in childbirth, or a child who died in the first month after birth, we forget that until the 1920s, most families were in grief at some point in their lives over dead mothers and wives, children and siblings who never survived to become part of the family. Birth control is one of many advances that has changed maternal health for the better.

Lutherans look at Jesus and Paul’s relationships with women, and from there, we reason that women are just as important to God as men. We see that women are just as much partners with God in caring for creation. That partnership with God means that we are responsible for stewardship of things like our health, but it also means that we value women’s lives in a way that people in other churches do not. Birth control opens up a lot of possibilities for women. I wouldn’t be able to be a pastor with ten children. I wouldn’t be able to work anywhere except at home, caring for my enormous family. If my church believed that women only belonged at home and that decisions about children had to be left to God, my life would be very different.

So many Christians from other traditions and so many people of other faiths struggle against scientific endeavor because of their understanding of God, their theology. It has concrete consequences as so many Americans now deny science, distain academics and distrust education. It has concrete consequences as many of their members feel that their church is out of touch with things that have become everyday and indispensable, like birth control. Believers become former believers, because life and faith seem to be disconnected.

Our Lutheran heritage and our understanding of stewardship often divides us from other believers. But it also means we bring a unique witness of God as a creator interested in all of our lives, as well as our deaths. We bring an understanding that our lives are lived as partners with this God, and that things like scientific discovery and technological innovation are not necessary evils but part of the lives we create with God’s help.

So I hope that the crafters of the statement take my suggestion to heart, to add a section about birth control. Most importantly, I hope we don’t lose sight of the important witness we offer as Lutherans, that modern life can be lived faithfully, and that faith is essential to living in our place and time.