God’s Newness and Personal Transformation
October 15, 2017
Revelation 21; Acts
Apart from their extraordinary contribution to human happiness, what do the following have in common: Erasmus, Leonardo de Vinci, Michaelangelo, Christopher Marlowe, King James I of England, Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Gray, Frederick the Great of Germany, Margaret Fuller, Tchaikovsky, Nijinsky, Proust, A.E. Houseman, T.E. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Edith Hamilton, W.H. Auden, Willa Cather, Tennessee Williams, and the tennis star Martina Navratilova. They are all gays and lesbians.
That was the opening to a sermon that I preached in 1995, when I told the congregation that two gay men had asked me to perform their wedding, something not yet legal in New Jersey. But I brought it to the congregation because the future beckoned us forward to make a statement on where we stood vis-à-vis gay families.
We spent a year in study and dialogue on the subject with the bible in one hand and the scientific literature in the other hand. I remember a book study on Chandler Burr’s comprehensive review of sexual orientation that was so much more complex than any of us had any idea, how our sexual orientation is formed and why it appears to exist on a scale that runs between ‘exclusively heterosexual’ to ‘exclusively homosexual, how homosexual behavior is not so much ‘deviant behavior’ as most of us were taught as children, but merely a ‘deviation from the norm’, comprising a predictable 4% of the population.
And we looked at the Bible, this story in particular, because this little story turns out to have a huge hermeneutical tool that we need to use to interpret the bible on any moral or social subject. The Old Testament indeed has a couple of passages that say something like “If a man lies with another man as though he were a woman, it is an abomination”.
That sounds pretty serious. And certainly, it was delivered that way by fundamentalist preachers in the South that read the Bible literally. Except that word ‘toevah’ or ‘abomination’ is not so serious. It means that you are not kosher, not ritually pure, not Orthodox Jewish.
Eating pork is also an abomination, lobster, shrimp scampi, having sex during menstruation, lots of thing that are all detailed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It had the moral effect of saying, “Good Jewish boys don’t do it”, a line I believe that was repeated from the time of Moses all the way up to my Grandmother who told us essentially the same thing.
So, what do you do with these passages from the past that reflect the mores of an earlier era? You let the future guide you as this pivotal little story in Acts makes clear. It was really revolutionary for Christians. Because the biggest question for the first Christians was whether regular Romans had to become Jews in order to become Christians.
After all Jesus was a Jew, all the disciples were Jews. Jesus teaching quickly spread to ordinary Romans who wanted to follow in the way of Jesus, but for the adult me who had never been circumcised, the part of becoming Jewish that required circumcision was met with a big “woah, say what?”
This was the first big debate in the church. It was divisive. Orthodox Jews, in order to be Orthodox, had to eat different food, stay separate from Romans when they ate. It meant that you had Jews over here and Romans over there (say at the church picnic), which is not good for community.
Peter and Paul had many deep discussions about the subject. Peter takes the Orthodox position and Paul takes the inclusion position. It goes back and forth, back and forth, the way these things do.
And Peter has this dream. He has the same dream 3 times. In the Roman world that means it came from God. And in the dream, God collects all the things that are not kosher into one huge blanket and says, “Those things that were formerly not kosher, I declare are now kosher”.
That is an amazing story. We have God saying, all the stuff I prohibited as not kosher in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. That no longer matters. Apparently, God can change God’s mind. And not just a little but a lot.
Perhaps more miraculous than God changing God’s mind, Peter changes his mind too. Peter says, “Truly I perceive that God is not partial towards any nation or any religion, but whoever stands in respectful awe before God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”
Spark jumps the gap for Peter. Jesus taught them to go to ‘every nation’. Jesus taught them that it is not what you put into your mouth but what comes out of your mouth that defiles you. Jesus taught them that treating your neighbor as yourself is more important than whether they are heretical (like Samaritans were), or whether they were women, or whether they were slaves, or lepers or tax collectors. God is inclusive.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that they don’t possess all of the Truth. He says that the Spirit will come upon them in the future and the Spirit will ‘lead them into all truth.’ We can’t just ask ourselves what did we do yesterday. We have to continually ask ourselves what will become true for the rising generation?
What is coming next?
And the Bible isn’t given to us as a set of eternal spiritual computer code that you just have to parse to unlock the key to how to live. It is an evolving Truth that is dependent on us being led by the Spirit to figure things out in a new era.
So, for us, when we looked at gays and lesbians, we turned to science because we live in a scientific world. And our best science explained that our sexual orientation is a given on a spectrum that we are largely born with. This is the way God made us?
For us as a community, the spiritual question became, how to we live in love and acceptance with LBGTQ world? How do we express compassion and make a place for their families? How do we raise our children to live in a world where, knowing that there are gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, transgendered people, we can show respect and understanding so that all of us can live integrated spiritual lives together?
The miracle for us, like the miracle for Peter, was that we stopped waiting for them to change and we finally figured out that we need to change. This was the Truth that the Spirit led us into.
I couldn’t help but think about that reading the paper this week. You have to dig past the first 5 stories that are all about something nutty from Washington. But then you get to two stories about big change from the past to the future.
The Boy Scouts, one of the most traditional American organizations you can imagine, formerly headed by our Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson and now headed by former Secretary of Defense and Head of the CIA, Robert Gates- people that are decidedly not politically correct liberals.
The Boy Scouts decided to accept gay scouts, transgendered scouts, and now are going to make a place for girls in scouting, so that they can earn an Eagle Scout badge.
They started to think through the issue of the world that our children are going to live in soon. They started to ask themselves the question of what they would need to adapt successfully in that world. And they transcended the traditional mores of a simpler, earlier era to make the virtues of scouting available to a new generation in a new world.
I would just like to point out that our very own Emil Rufolo is involved in the national leadership of the Boy Scouts over decades now. Just this month I got a notice from the national Executive Director that Emil was awarded the “God and Country” honor.
Usually, the religious people that get interviewed for these things are standing foursquare against the new changes like the Mormon church. I can’t tell you how proud I am that the leaders from Christ Church are standing with their eyes fixed decidedly on the future, not the past, ready to transcend the boundaries of yesteryear to make our world a more inclusive world.
The second headline, where the future drove us to transcend the past, was a small notice that Malala Mustafa,-the young girl whose school in Pakistan was burned down by the Taliban and she stood up in protest as a Middle School student only to be shot by the Taliban- she enrolled at Oxford University to study politics and economics.
It is the Taliban’s worst nightmare, an educated woman with moral grit. What a huge step forward it will be to educate women, the world over.
My grandmothers were actively discouraged from college in the 20’s. Almost no women went to college and almost none of the top 150 colleges in the United States accepted women until the 60’s.
It remains the case that 2/3rd’s of the illiterate adults in our world are women because they are treated as second class citizens in too many places. And when you have that, you allow an imbalance of power where men lord over their women like Harvey Weinstein and that has been the norm for hundreds and thousands of years.
But the future knows our gender distinctions matter less and less. And after 70 years of admitting women to college in the United States, there are slightly more women enrolled (and who will graduate) than men.
And we know from our outreach efforts in developing nations that when you empower women with education and skills that allow them to develop economic independence, you get much more stable families because women invest more in their children than men.
And when you have stable families, you are much more likely to develop stable democratic societies. So, our outreach partners in Nicaragua at Christ Church are all women’s co-operatives because you get a radial multiplication of your investment.
We want to be the Church of the future. We already have way too many churches and mosques that look to the past. They want to go back to the 7th century to Shariah law, just like our Orthodox churches speak a Greek in their liturgy from the 5th century that no one understands or a Russian from the 7th century that no one understands, allowing you to meditate in these time-honored ways that take you out of this world.
Meanwhile, the most significant challenges to us spiritually come from a future that changes so rapidly our society is in unchartered water. We have never been at this place in our social evolution yet.
Our grandchildren will have the tools in their hands to directly modify our own gene pool. It will allow us to prevent inheritable diseases from ever afflicting our family again. Of course, it will also allow us to make a generation of children that are smarter than the rest of us? More handsome? Better athletes… How are they going to deploy that technical ability? What moral guidelines should we develop for this god like power? Societies technical abilities proceed quickly… what we need is for the church to develop a moral imagination so that we can keep up.
Right now, we are living through another revolution of our consciousness because of our abundant use of social media. When I first started lecturing at Rutgers University in the late 80’s, I noticed that my students lost attention in what was an interesting class, ethics. I realized that they were subconsciously programmed from growing up watching television to have a mental break every 7 minutes. Even National Public Radio says, ‘we’ll be right back after this short break’… and they don’t even have commercials. So, I would tell a joke or a story every 7 minutes and then return to the material. Problem solved by adapting to a new consciousness.
Today people are being interrupted more and more frequently with calls, texts, updates. And we have studies that show we retain less since we are dependent on technology for more and more answers, we can focus less intensely and for shorter periods of time. Our very consciousness is evolving in significant ways that previous generations knew nothing about. How will we change? How should we change? We need a moral imagination to keep pace with our technical prowess. y
The power of God, through what Christian call the Holy Spirit gives us that power to change. And what a profound power it is. I think of F. W. De Klerk when he was the President of South Africa. He had grown up proud to be an Afrikaner, proud of his country’s heritage throwing off colonial rule by the British, establishing a vibrant economy, believing that apartheid was a noble ideal for self-rule- the Zulu’s ruling their own people, the Afrikaners ruling their own people and the other tribes in South African ruling their own people.
But through the 1980’s, he came to see that Apartheid had become unjust, however well-intentioned his grandparents might have been when they founded it in the 1890’s. And it is true that he was helped to see the immorality of his position by a well disciplined protest movement, led by Nelson Mandela. And it is true that the nations of the world put a great deal of pressure on the National party to end apartheid for many years.
But people do not change simply because they are told to change, particularly when that pressure is from the outside. It often makes genuine change actually harder.
De Klerk had a number of meetings with the leaders of the National party. And they asked themselves the question, ‘what is the right thing to do’? It is a question that real leaders ask themselves in difficult situations.
“In the end, I came to the conclusion, and not only me but the other leaders of the National party that apartheid would not work, that it had failed to bring justice and that it had become manifestly unjust. And that from a moral point of view it was indefensible and that it could not be repaired by improving it. So we reached the conclusion… that we must make a 180 degree turn in our thinking… [Several years later], after we had founded the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ with the ANC, I made a profound apology on national TV for the pain and the humiliation and the destitution that apartheid had caused for so many people… The ANC would sometimes like you to believe that I just had to do it, that it was merely a pragmatic decision, but I can assure you that within my party we had a long process of asking ourselves what is the right thing to do, what can bring justice to the people. And that, if I can put it on a scale, was the driving force behind our decision.”
Change can happen. It is rare. It is difficult. That is why we call it divine.
We follow a spiritual leader that taught us, it is the higher way. Jesus showed us how to ask not just ‘why?’ but ‘Why not?’ He taught us to envision a better world, a world infused with God. He called it ‘the Kingdom of God’.
And may you be blessed with the divine spirit to change. May you see the future challenges and inspire new vision with the question, “why not?” May we all come to ask the more beautiful question. Our children and grandchildren are begging for that kind of genuine leadership. Amen.