New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 22, 2013
For the last 50 years or so, off and on, we have begun the process of breaking with convention. We see it in everything from art to style of dress to types of worship to parenting to lifestyle. And since the advent of the Internet and social media these changes have increased not only in speed, but also our ability to adapt to them. Sometimes it seems as though everything is up for grabs, that the very ground is shifting under our feet, and there are times we don’t know when we need to stand and stand firm.
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote in his book The Shaking of the Foundations that there were spans of time when we could listen to the prophets’ words of the mountains trembling, of the earth breaking into pieces and not take them so seriously. But I think we’ve known for some time now that those days are gone.
And thankfully so, because in order for true change to occur, there needs to be some shaking up. Breaking with convention in big and small ways helps pave the way for true liberation, so that those who have lived in hiding can come safely into the light.
Convention told us that if you have a mental illness, suffer from depression, or if you have an addiction, you should keep it to yourself or at least within your family. Convention told us if you had autism or Asperger’s, that you wouldn’t be able to relate us or us to you. Convention told us that if you were being bullied, that it was part of growing up. Convention told us that if you didn’t want to have children, it would be hard for your parents to not have grandchildren, that you were being selfish. If you love someone of the same gender, convention said we don’t want to see you; don’t expect to enjoy the same rights or receive the same treatment as heterosexual couples. Convention told us that there was an “us” and a “them”.
It was not only convention but Jewish law that told Joseph that he shouldn’t go through with his betrothal to Mary. In fact, the law called for Mary to be stoned to death, since she was found pregnant before being legally married. When Jesus said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”, he could have been reminded of his own mother.
We read, though, that Joseph is not one to throw stones. He is a righteous man, a man of noble virtues, and does not want to publicly disgrace Mary. This is one strong man. Joseph was within his rights. He could have had his pound of flesh for what appeared to be a betrayal of his trust. Instead he planned to dismiss Mary quietly—a private divorce. Which would have been more than enough for anyone else.
But God says it’s not enough to be righteous and do the right thing quietly. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Though Joseph knows the truth about this child, no one else will. From all appearances Joseph will be judged as the father of this child conceived before marriage. He too will bear the sting of humiliation.
It wasn’t enough for United Methodist pastor Rev. Frank Schaefer to perform the marriage ceremony for his gay son. “Do not be afraid, Frank, to stand firm against bigotry couched as Christian doctrine. For what you are doing is conceived of the Holy Spirit.” Now he has vowed to continue to serve the LGBT community regardless of the decision by church officials to defrock him. "I am actively committing to having those discriminatory laws changed and banished from our Book of Discipline," Schaefer said. "That's the only way I can reconcile being a United Methodist at this point."
It’s not enough to say ‘no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here’ and then get antsy about who might walk through the door or worry about children making noise. It’s not enough to break with convention, to invite those who are in hiding into the light but then we must stand with them where they are, until it becomes so crowded that the walls begin to crack and the light streams in.
This Great Emergence that we’re living through, this time of what seems like anything is up for grabs, this time of breaking with convention, this time of upheaval, what if what is emerging is us, our true humanity? What if this is the time to bring all of who we are into the light? That finally it is acceptable to be human in all our myriad incarnations, none of us the same, all of us beautiful and flawed, imperfect yet perfectly ourselves, authentic and real.
What if what is being revealed, what if what is emerging, is the image of God within all of us? “Do not be afraid to love, to be just, to have courage, to stand with those in hiding, for what you are doing has been conceived of the Holy Spirit.”
Recall if you will that two months ago I first mentioned this Great Emergence and that the pressing question that humanity must answer as part of this upheaval is “By what authority do we live?” We know that for Western Christianity it is no longer the Bible. We know that slavery is wrong, that women are not property nor should they be silent in church, that every person should be able to marry the person they love. This knowledge contradicts the Bible and its ultimate authority. So by what authority do we live? What if, though, the answer could be universal for all human beings, no matter what their creed or belief?
I think the answer is another question: In anything that we say or do, will we do so with fear or with love? I think it is as simple as that. Will love be our authority or fear? Joseph was willing to do act with love but only so far as his fear would let him. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
Where in our own lives or in our life together is God speaking to us, telling us to not be afraid to be loving, to be just, to be our true self, to have courage to do the hard thing? When do we wear the outer armor of fear rather than the inner armor of love? What are the hiding places and prisons in our lives and in our human culture that need to be brought into the light? What do we really mean when we say and celebrate that God is with us?
Do not be afraid, Cynthia, to move away from the familiar, to start all over, to upend your family and to wed yourself to this church and this community, for this has all been conceived by the Holy Spirit. And God is with you.
Do not be afraid, New Ark United Church of Christ, to be exactly who you are—flawed and fabulous—for you have been conceived by the Holy Spirit to be the Body of Christ, to be fearlessly loving, to be just, to have courage to do the hard thing, to stand with those still in hiding until the walls crack and the light streams in. And God is with you.