Around 1995, I began a sermon at Christ Church with this: Apart from their extraordinary contribution to human happiness, what do the following people have in common?
Michael Angelo, Lord Byron, the blues singer Bessie Smith, Sir Francis Bacon, W.H. Auden, the publisher Malcolm Forbes, Frederick the Great of Prussia, the author Willa Cather, Leonardo DaVinci, T. E. Lawrence, the singer Sinead O’Connor, the poet Mary Oliver, the musician’s John Cage and Leonard Bernstein, the writer Alice Walker, the theater composer Steven Sondheim, , the writer Virginia Woolf, the director Franco Zeffirelli, the composer Tchaikovsky, tennis great Martina Navratilova, the Russian ballet dancer Nijinsky, the photographer Annie Leibovitz, the choreographer Jerome Robbins, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the artist Jasper Johns, the great Broadway actor Joel Grey, the great Congressman from Texas, Barbara Jordan, the writer James Baldwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the botanist George Washington Carver, the film director Werner Fassbinder, the playwright Noel Coward, Sir Alec Guinness (or Obi Wan Kenobi, the Jedi Knight as most of us know him), the economist John Maynard Keynes, Olympic Gold medalist diver Greg Louganis, the comedian Lily Tomlin, the winsome Oscar Wilde, lead guitarist of the Who Peter Townsend, Folk singer Joan Baez, the playwright Tennessee Williams, the composer Aaron Copeland and the actor James Dean?
That is right, they are gay, lesbian or bi-sexual. Why do I mention it? I asked then. “Because what was once unmentionable has now become unavoidable.”
I went on to describe the burgeoning new research in sexual orientation that turned out to be much more complex than anyone would have imagined. I don’t think any of us had ever read a book on sexual orientation in college and there were almost no books that translated the burgeoning research in a way that ordinary people could understand it.
I raised the topic in church because a gay couple asked me to perform their union. Marriage was illegal at the time. And in our polity, in our branch called the ‘free church’, the congregation makes decisions on things like this for better and worse. Of course, I could have just quietly blessed their union in the Watchung Reservation and not told the congregation about it. But I realized that this was an important social issue for us and the time was right. So, I asked the Deacons to lead us on a year long discussion on the subject.
We had read a book on sexual orientation; we had Doctor’s come speak on the subject. We had people from the congregation come and speak on what it was like to have gay family members. I led a study on what the scriptures say about homosexuality and how we should think about this in light of the total message of the Bible. Finally, we heard from our own Music Minister, Wayne Bradford about what it was like growing up with ostracism for being gay when he was a child in West Texas.
And we heard from out teenagers about why this is an important issue at High School. They gave us a remarkably articulate description of homophobia at the time that subtly but significantly permeated the ethos of the High School. I might add that one of our teenagers in that group came out about 10 years later and today is married, practicing medicine, and is another example of someone making an extraordinary contribution to human happiness.
The biggest push back we had at the time came not from our elders but from people that were my age, in their 40’s. It wasn’t overt. It went like this. Christ Church has always been an accepting community. Why do we have to single out ‘gays and lesbians’? Why can we just be open towards all people?
And the answer, borne out by testimony from multiple people, is that gays and lesbians feel particularly excluded, especially from church because every Church, Synagogue and Mosque has explicitly told them that they were morally deviant.
Interestingly, when we turned to the scientific literature, we learned that our sexual identity comes to us on a spectrum. 90 something percentage of people are exclusively heterosexual, about 4 percent are exclusively homosexual and another small percentage are bi-sexual. The exact numbers are not important.
The key observation is that homosexual orientation is a regularly recurring deviation on a statistical norm. But that does not mean they are morally deviant.
In Judaism and Christianity, we get the idea that they are morally deviant from our own scriptures. Perhaps the most notorious is Leviticus 18:22 “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Sounds pretty terrible. An abomination. When we use that word in English, it sounds like something pretty awful, so it must be pretty bad.
Except that in this case, “abomination” is not a very good translation of the word. “Toevah” in Hebrew means something like “it is disgusting”, which still sounds pretty bad. Except that the word is used in the context of keeping kosher, observing the ritual and dietary laws that make Judaism Judaism.
So, eating bacon is also “toevah” an abomination. Shrimp cocktail is also disgusting. So is lobster bisque. Disgusting. Perhaps to Jews, but not so much for Gentiles, for Goyim.
Perhaps you read the story just this week in the Washington Post that had a police officer in Knoxville, Tennessee that is also an evangelical pastor of a tiny church. He still used this same traditional logic. The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. So, he was calling for us to execute gays and lesbians, much to the horror of the journalist covering the story.
But it is important to understand that this prejudice was an integral part of almost all churches and almost all synagogues until very recently. I was at an academic conference in the late 80’s. I happened to be sitting next to one of the world’s top Jewish moral thinkers, a broad minded intellectual. I asked him why so few Jewish intellectuals had spoken out about homosexuality. This is in the 80’s. He responded, “Eh, it’s a Goy problem”. As in, we don’t have gays in Jewish life.
As you might imagine, he has since repented of that position and has written some very thoughtful pieces on gays, lesbians and Judaism. But that was the way we viewed things for a very long time until just recently.
As a religious leader, what was obvious to me is that we were just wrong. Our tradition was supporting prejudice that cannot be justified when you encounter gays and lesbians who actually come to the church and ask you to bless their unions.
We tried shame and ostracisim for centuries and that didn’t change a thing. It just made the lives of our gay and lesbian children miserable, gave them an image of inferiority that something was wrong with them.
Gays and lesbians don’t need to change. The Church needs to change. Gays and lesbians aren’t wrong. The Church is wrong.
Why can’t we just admit we made a mistake and figure out a way to correct that mistake? Why can’t we grow? We worship a God who makes all things new. We worship a God that wants redemption for us. Why can’t we mature with a better understanding of human sexuality and a more humane approach to people of every sexual orientation?
And then William Sloane Coffin pointed out this text to my generation. I don’t know why I had never reflected on this text but it is critical. It tells us that God can change God’s mind. And if God can change God’s mind, why don’t we claim that freedom as well? Why can’t we change our minds?
Just after Jesus died, all the followers of Jesus were Jewish obviously. Jesus was Jewish. But immediately, Romans were attracted to his humane spirituality of love. Within a couple years, quite a large number of non-Jews started joining the movement, the church.
The first question for the church was, ‘Do you have to become Jewish to become a disciple of Jesus?’ It was a big question at the time. Why?
Well, Jews had to keep kosher. So, they had to separate from the Romans when they ate. They had to prepare their food in kosher ways, clean their kitchen utensils in kosher ways. It was veritably impossible to keep kosher and have a potluck supper with Romans. So, in the very beginning, the congregation would gather for worship and prayer. Afterwards they would eat separately.
But this was divisive for the community. It separated people to those over here and those over there, the inside and the outside. It produced a substantial argument for the leaders of the church, between Peter and Paul.
Peter was Jewish and presumed that good Christians would be good Jews just like him. He was the first traditionalist in Christianity. “Of course, people should be like me. That is the way, we’ve always done it.” Just like your Dad.
Paul heard more from the Romans since he planted new churches, and knew more non-Jewish Romans. They didn’t want to keep kosher. Never mind having to learn to separate meat from milk. Most Roman men couldn’t get past the first rite of becoming Jewish, becoming circumcised.
It is one thing, if you are circumcised when you are two hours old. It is quite another if you are 35. These guys were the very first people to say to the Minister, “You know Rev., I’m spiritual but not all that religious” Thanks but no thanks. I’m good just like I am now.
More and more substantial leaders were choosing to follow Jesus but they weren’t Jewish. Peter meets quite a few of them and sees the need to welcome them, but what to do about keeping kosher?
Like a lot of us, the answer to this complicated, ambiguous conundrum comes to him in a dream. In the dream, God comes to him and shows him this sheet full of these non-kosher items that Jews are explicitly told to avoid at all costs in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. Pigs, lobsters, Grouse, salamanders, and the like.
God tells him, ‘What was once called non-kosher I now pronounce kosher’… What was once impure is now pure.’ Wow.
Apparently, God can change God’s mind. God, in effect, tells Peter in the dream, “You know all that stuff I dictated to Moses in the first 5 books of the Bible??? Eh, never mind about that anymore.” This is not a small thing. It is a big thing.
After Jesus dies, the book of Acts says that the Holy Spirit poured over the disciples and followers of Jesus an ushered in the new age. A new way of thinking that transcends the simple tradition of the past. It is no longer enough to just cite what we did yesterday. We have to think these things through for ourselves.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus is resurrected, he says to the disciples not to fear for ‘lo I will be with you until the close of this age’. Until the end of time. Jesus breathes on the disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit who will guide towards all truth after he is gone.
And we will keep evolving, growing, understanding what it means to ‘love’, what it means to be compassionate, what it means to be humane and understanding. What it means to be vulnerable, like Jesus made himself vulnerable. And we can make ourselves vulnerable by admitting that we don’t have all the answers when we are in a complicated, ambiguous situation.
We can make ourselves vulnerable by admitting that we were wrong in the past. We can change our mind because even God changes God’s mind.
Peter comes to a new conclusion, “I perceive that God shows no partiality but that people from every single nation (not just the Jews) who stand in awe before the Almighty and do what is right, are acceptable to God.”
Profound insight. Love and spiritual substance transcend tradition and make us more authentically humane. Lin Manuel Miranda just paraphrased that thought. And that is what we learned going through this discussion… “Love is love is love is love is love.”
We are not a rule making people. We let love, humane love, transcend the rules and guide us to new insights, better ways of being in the world.
When the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples, there is a radical freedom for us to figure these things out on our own. We are guided by tradition, but we are not bound to it. The hope of the presence of God is that we can pray about novel challenges that no generation has ever faced before and figure these things out amongst ourselves. It is how we grow spiritually.
We are looking to the future, where our children will live. We are imaging a better world for them instead of perpetuating the misunderstanding and prejudice of the past. We can do better than this.
We are being pulled forward by the future as much as we are grounded by our past. We are always evolving. It is a lot more demanding than just following the rules. It is a lot more spiritually engaging. But man, it is a lot more real.
In the end, with our discussions, people were most moved by listening to gays and lesbians themselves, by listening to their brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents. That is what was so moving and why the congregation decided that we did need to stand up and make a statement, create a sanctuary of welcome for gay and lesbian families.
The day of the vote, we did it right here, we didn’t need a lot of speechifying. We had covered most every aspect of the debate during the year. So, when we opened the floor to debate, exactly one person got up to speak against the motion, a longtime member, 75 years old, well respected in the community, who said that if Christ Church passed a measure blessing gay unions, he would have to leave the church.
And exactly one person got up after him to speak for the motion, a long time member, 75 years old, well respected in the community, who said that if Christ Church did not pass this measure to bless gay unions, she would have to leave the church.
We voted. It passed. And a few families did leave the church. More than half of them returned within a year, including the one person who spoke against it, long time member, 75 years old, well respected member.
And what we didn’t think about… A few more families joined just because they heard we about what we did.
And you look at that resolution. It is so quaint now. And the conversation has moved forward so far from there.
But here is the thing. We are in a position to be part of the updated conversation because we passed that quaint resolution way back when. And we are going to learn faster and better than other congregations because we did the simple thing, we listened in compassion and tried to figure out how we could support LBGTQ people and their families.
We decided to steer with the headlights of the future rather than the tail lights of yesterday. We followed Jesus without embarrassing God. That is a big step forward.
And really, that decision had radial effects that none of us would have predicted even twenty years ago. We kept growing in the direction of extending our intentional outreach to make our congregation more and more diverse.
We developed the Race Equity Task Force to help us all develop some awareness and sensitivity around race and ethnicity, so that we can figure out how to live together in reconciliation rather than segregated and surrounded by people almost all of whom are like us.
As we did that, we started to see as a congregation that learning to live with difference, learning to celebrate diversity and use it as a strength to build synergy together is the central social and spiritual issue of our time.
It is our community challenge, our national challenge, the world challenge of our global village.
And slowly we started to realize that we need to develop a congregation that will reflect the actual world our children and our grandchildren will inherit. And it started to dawn on us that our kids will be much better equipped spiritually if they have personal friendships from childhood with people that are really different than they are and that our wee congregation is a great incubus to give them that spiritual grounding.
And that is the other thing. Our kids were listening. They got it. Last summer we interviewed all these people from the congregation. We asked them ‘what does Christ Church mean to you?’ And we recorded their answers.
They asked that question to one of our first graders. “What does Christ Church mean to you?” She said, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” What a great answer, and without even having to think about it.
And our children were listening then too. I remember how many of our high school kids turned out that day. Everybody wants to see a good fight.
I decided to cancel coffee hour that week. A year and change of challenge, we didn’t know how the vote would go, or whether there would be hurt feelings, so we decided that the best thing to do would be to vote and just go home.
So I did something that week that I never, ever do. After church, I packed three teenagers and one elementary kid in the family Mini-van and we drove home from church together. I get to the house, turn off the car, and I just sat there for a minute quiet.
My teenagers were not particularly church people but they went to church that day. I had the same attitude from my teens that all my friends had, same angst and distance.
No one exactly bounced out of the car. From the back seat, I heard my oldest son say out loud, “Dad, I’ll never say you didn’t stand for anything.” It was one of those lines, I never realized how much I wanted to hear at some point in my life from my kids, until he said it.
And he didn’t say that just for me. He meant that for all of us together, the younger generation telling us we did the right thing on our watch and made their life better. Every year people try to measure the success of the church by how many people we have and how big our budget is.
We can’t quantify ‘standing for something’ but that is how we measure our success spiritually, morally. We did the right thing. Always easy to see in retrospect.
Post shaming, post ostracism, we tried the blessing approach. The love approach. The humane approach. And we still have a lot to learn. But God only asks us to acknowledge that we are a work in progress. God only asks us to grow and evolve. To be alive, deeply alive. “I came not that you might simply have life” said Jesus “But that you might live your life abundantly.” You are blessed by love, live out of that blessing as a child of God. Amen.