Crooks and Whores
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
September 25, 2005
Scripture: Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32
“Truly I say to you the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.” –Matthew 21:32
The key to an understanding of the teaching of Jesus is that it was so irksome to the good folk of his time that they had him crucified. It was the church people of his time that arranged his death and, within their frame of reference, they had good reason to do it. We church people do not kill those who tell moving stories and assure us that God loves us – as the current sentimental Jesus of the toothless church is portrayed. We do kill those who challenge the authenticity of our deepest convictions. Woe to anyone who says that white collar criminals and red lingerie ladies are nearer to the will of God than we are, because they know they are spiritually bereft, while we claim to be spiritually secure. They cry, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner,” while we say, “Lord, vindicate my righteousness, especially in the face of those shameless white collar criminals and politicians, and any other people like that.” (I confess that this saying of Jesus knocks me off my moral high ground above white collar crooks like Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Koslawski, both recently sentenced to long prison terms for corporate fraud, about whom I feel righteously indignant. Jesus warns me that they may be nearer the kingdom than I, and I fervently do not want to hear that. This is why I always follow the lectionary when I preach; it forces me to listen to texts I would otherwise avoid).
We must admit that Jesus gets our attention by telling us that when we are unwilling to change we are worse than crooks and whores. Point taken. And he alerts us to the fact that he was on occasion personally obnoxious; and we remember that the grace of God he revealed was not only amazing but also outrageous (cf. Matt. 20:1-16; Lk. 16:1-9). Please bear that in mind because what I am going to say will be obnoxious and outrageous to at least some of us- or I shall have failed.
So, what do I hear from Jesus today? I hear that those people whom I despise are nearer to God than I because they are able to recognize their need to change. They are not complacent; they are open to change, to radical change. And that is the theme I propose for this reconciliation reflection, the theme of change. Change has been of the essence of Christian faith since it first came from the lips of Jesus. Perfection in love was one of John Wesley’s pet themes; to this day we Methodist clergy have to aver upon ordination that we are going on to perfection. The definitive statement on perfection comes from St Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century Greek theologian who was one of the architects of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and who said that since God is infinite and we are finite we shall never reach perfection in the sense of full union with God, so the journey itself is the perfection. We shall always have to be moving on deeper and deeper into the divine love, never resting permanently but only for a time, and never arriving. That is why Paul the Apostle says that faith, hope and love abide forever, because as creatures we shall ever only be related to our creator by faith and hope, and experience him in love. Life is a journey, eternal life is a journey, what St Bonaventure called the ”itinerarium mentis in deum,” the journey of the mind into God.
The change we focus on today is the change in the church’s theology of sex and gender that is taking place even as we speak. I think the period of the change of attitude towards gay and lesbian people in our church is well underway and approaching maturity, and now we must ask if and how the basic convictions of the faith are following suit. It is important for many and obvious reasons to square our deep convictions with our outer behavior, and it is important for gay people to know that they are our fellow Christians not by suffrage from us who are prepared out of love for them to bend the rules, but by full entitlement from the Christ himself.
So I have one point to make and three books to recommend. The point is that God has infinitely more light and truth to break forth for us from his revealing word, and that as we move on in the perfection of the journey into God, which is the true perfection of us creatures, we receive light and truth along the way. One of the latest great gifts of the divine grace, which remember Jesus tells us is not merely amazing but outrageous, is the gift of sexual and gender liberation, in which we are enabled to receive with joy freedom in sexuality and gender orientation. God now tells us that how people physically express their relationship with each other – vaginally, anally, orally- is not of determinative importance to the relationship itself. God does not favor the missionary position or sanction only one orifice. We are all the disciples of Jesus, all the children of God, however we choose to connect physically, and God wants us to cultivate and cherish relationships that are loving, generous and honest rather than worry about the physics of it.
This entails a massive change in the Christian theology of sex and gender. There is scarcely any field where the Christians have done more emotional, moral and spiritual damage than in the field of sexuality. Because of Christian teaching it has for many been impossible to enjoy sex without guilt, and the deep alternatives have been only the virgin or the whore. The third possibility of a joyous, innocent sexual practice has been excluded.
Let us look at some current examples of the catastrophic effect of Christian sex morals: Young men and women are pledging before their churches and parents, publicly promising to abstain from intercourse before marriage. The result of this practice to date is a huge increase in anal and oral sex, so that a bride comes to her wedding night with a virtuous vagina and two virtuoso alternatives. Christian pieosity thus ironically encourages gay sex practice. There is also an increase in unwanted pregnancies as people do not admit beforehand that they might have regular intercourse and are carried away in guilty ecstasy. Then consider the Roman Catholic priests’ dilemma, under a Christian teaching so hostile to sex that it glorifies lifelong abstinence and produces the saddest, most tragic results that we all read of daily.
Let’s focus specifically today on how we should regard church theology’s view of gay and lesbian sexuality. I suggest that we should regard the church’s hostility to it like the church’s view of slavery. Once not so long ago we endorsed slavery and backed the slave owner’s right to possess and use his property. Now there is surely no Christian theology that would endorse such a position, despite the fact that worldwide slavery is alive and well, encompassing something like 8 hundred thousand victims. This year John Noonan, a justice of the Federal Appeals Court of the Ninth Circuit and a Catholic layman published, ”A Church that Can and Cannot Change; The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching (South Bend: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2005).” In it he points out how the Roman church, despite its iron clad moral bureaucracy finally condemned slavery in 1888, after every Christian nation had declared it illegal- the shepherd running to catch up with the sheep. Also this year Adam Hochschild, Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley (Author of “King Leopold’s Ghost”) published “Bury the Chains; Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York: Houghton Mifflin 2005) in which he points out how impossible the prospect of ending chattel slavery appeared in the 18th century when English evangelical Protestants, led by Thomas Clarkson and Granville Clark, and later by William Wilberforce, set out to end it. Virtually the whole economy of England depended on the famous triangular trade of trinkets from Bristol, slaves from Guinea, and sugar from the West Indies. Most of those huge palaces and country houses we tourists visit in England, were built on the bones of black men and women and their sumptuous gardens watered with slaves’ blood. The church supported this trade. Jonathan Edwards even as he preached to the Indians had a black slave to help him, and George Whitfield kept slaves to support his orphanage in Philadelphia, to mention only two heroes of our Methodist Evangelical tradition. John Wesley himself however was adamantly against it from the beginning and forever.
The third book I wish to refer to is by David S. Reynolds, called “John Brown Abolitionist; the Man who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights (New York: Knopf, 2005).” There is no time to say anything more, except that Brown was the first truly enlightened Christian in America. Thoreau called him a second Christ; Emerson called him the exemplar of the great American individual, and the Jim Crow historians after the War of the Rebellion called him a madman. Today, because of Reynolds’ work we know that he favored the real empowerment of the blacks and the emancipation of women, in the first half of nineteenth century. This book brings us to our own time. The War of the Rebellion emancipated the slaves but did not end slavery. Hurricane Katrina showed us in New Orleans that the fight for equal rights goes on; nevertheless I doubt there in a church that would dare to say that God wants black people to be an underclass, and by that token no church should dare to say that gay and lesbian people are to be a pariah class.
So when we read the sources of our revelation now, especially the Bible – we must read them in the same way as we do with reference to slavery. All that about slavery is passé, all that about women keeping quiet in church is passé, and all that about homosexuals being unacceptable to God is passé. The history of the moral teaching of the church shows this, and the Rev. John Robinson knew this when from the coast of Holland he waved the Pilgrims “Goodbye” as they set sail for a New England in North America in the year 1620, on the ship “Mayflower.” “Go boldly into the unknown,” he said (or should have said), “Look to the good future, because “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word!” Today we claim and exalt the new light and truth that has broken forth for us and illuminates our way into the truer sexuality of this next stage of our journey together deeper and deeper into the divine love.