Wherever two or three Lutherans are gathered in my Name, someone will make a bad joke about them.
– A textual variant of Matthew 18:20.
One of the more “interesting” things about being a known Lutheran at an Episcopalian seminary is that whenever I chat with my fellow Lutheran student or professor, someone feels the need to make a comment. The comment is always in jest and it’s always the same. “You’re like a Lutheran Cabal!” they’ll say and we’ll respond “that’s right! We’re plotting and taking over!” Everyone will give a half-chuckle and we’ll move on with our lives. And this happens all the time. Students, faculty, visitors – everyone says it. If anyone wanted to know what the story of my time at General has been, this joke might sum 95% of it up.
The joke usually doesn’t bother me, and I know that it comes from a loving place, but on some days (like today), my eyes can’t roll hard enough when I hear it. It’s not that I want to be left alone (I don’t) or I’m trying to not stand out (I like the attention). No, none of that bothers me. I think what bothers me the most is that it’s a sign of otherness and distance between me and entire community. Part of that is expected and true: I’m not Episcopalian and I have no desire to become one. But I also sometimes wonder if, beneath the joke, that there is an undercurrent of anguish on behalf of some who say it. For most of my classmates, they are not cradle Episcopalians. The majority of them grew up in other traditions. They came to the Episcopal church, and seminary, because the church they were called to gave them life. They love their church! They love their new traditions! They love being part of it all! They want to propel that love into the world and they really do want everyone to have that same feeling of connection, love, and completeness that the Episcopal church (or at least a congregation in it) gave them. And I totally buy that.
But I don’t think everyone realizes that what they feel about being Episcopalian is the exact same thing that I feel about being Lutheran. I sometimes wonder if they feel sorry for me for not being Episcopalian. I don’t blame them for this; I think the same way about them sometimes (because, come on, Lutheran Christianity is awesome). But I wonder if they see my friend and I chatting, imagine we’re talking in some kind of Lutheran code, and they joke with us because they just really don’t get how we can be who we are.
I don’t imagine, in many ways, that this is that much different from the experience that plagues interfaith and ecumenical dialogues all over the world. For those of us that are really into our particular flavor of faith, we should feel that our flavor is the bee’s knees. But that can actually build walls and barriers unintentionally. I think it’s completely normal for that to happen and that it is fine if it does. But I think we should at least understand that it’s happening. If not, then we’re going to keep making the same old jokes, to the same old people, over and over again, and ignore the fact that their eyes have rolled so far, they’re now on the floor and heading out the door.