14 July 2012

Black, White and Gray All Over

When I wrote the title for today's thoughts, it almost sounded like a visual description of our dog...a 14 yr old Schnoodle named "Duchess."  Alas, such is not the case.  Duchess and I have just completed a long walk, and she is now sleeping soundly just outside the door to my study.  She has not a worry in the world.  On the other hand....

The Episcopal Church completed its triennial work of General Convention with the adjournment of both Houses (Bishops and Deputies) late Thursday afternoon...12 July.  I did not travel to Indianapolis for this convention.  It is the first one I have missed, since I began being part of that element of our Church in 1991.  I was a Deputy at six General Conventions (GC) -- except 1994 -- when I had arrived in Northern Indiana too late to be considered for election to their deputation.  I went as a volunteer for several days that time.  It was, oddly enough, in Indianapolis as well.

As I read the Bible (yes, I read it -- carefully and daily), the Apostles began this Body of Christ with many pressures and concerns.  First and foremost, they were illegal...both to the Sanhedrin and the Roman government.  They met quietly and secretly.  Their first Bishop (those not among the Twelve...called Apostles), James, was martyred in Jerusalem not many years after he was chosen.  Most of the Apostolic core lost their lives to martyrdom.  Nevertheless, the fledgling Church grew.

Acts records what is now called the First Council in Jerusalem to deal with a number of issues.  There was a famine.  How were the followers of Jesus (not yet called the Church) to meet the pressing needs of so many hungry people.  The "thirteenth" Apostle, Paul, was busily collecting money from new faith communities and bringing back funds to help the starving in Judea.  This is clearly a black/white issue.  There is a problem and solution process.

But, other considerations were "on the table" for deliberation.  This new community needed to signify how folks would be recognized as part of the community.  It came down to two choices (or a combination thereof):  Baptism or Circumcision.  Now we are in the arena of what I call "gray."  Moral theology -- whether in its infancy or after 2000 years -- is not a black/white process.  God does know that we try to make it that by believing we speak God's own mind in our pronouncements.  But the Apostles were smarter than that in the beginning.  They knew that no one person had the Mind of Christ or the Wisdom of God.  As far back as Moses, God was firm in telling him that we could not see the fullness of God but only a very small aspect as God passed by (the Hebrew language is more graphic than that...God actually tells Moses to behold his rear-end, as He passes by...English cleaned it up by calling it God's "train").

The Apostles realized that, together, they were more of God's Mind; and that their humanness would get in the way of the purity of revelation.  Their solution?  They debated this issue (rather hotly) for a good, long time.  When it seemed they had all registered an opinion, James stood and gave "judgment."  That was a rendering of the mind of the body gathered.  They had sought the guidance of the Spirit, and come to a place of consensus.

James then announced to the assembled (assumed to be beyond those in council), "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..."  Circumcision wold not be required of Gentiles.  This was a giant step in, a) making baptism the sole rite of entry into the community, and, b) moved the community beyond Judaism and into the cultures beyond them.  It was now "official."

I unpack this story for two reasons.  First, the Church, at its healthiest, has never been a static entity with a single mindset.  The Bible itself isn't even written that way.  The relationship between God and His People is hugely dynamic and moves all over the place at times.  The gift of human will creates a set of problems that make it necessary to chose the path and seek Holy Counsel.   Thus the Apostles employed the technique that worked best at that time.  Now, we in the Episcopal Church employ techniques suitable for a modern council.

Secondly, some folks always go away disappointed.  Do you think everyone left that first council in Jerusalem a happy camper?  I'll wager a lot that more than one went away groaning that the fledgling Body was already straying from the path by not staying dead on target with its Jewish origins.  Their conflict would have been their version of "my Church has left me."  Note, however, that they went about the business at hand.  No one is recorded as having left the group, or founded their own Church of the True Incorporation (Circumcision).   The same is true in a healthy context of contemporary Church.

The Episcopal Church's model of governance is about as inclusive as a body can be.  It has a bicameral legislative body that incorporates equal representation from each diocese...both lay and ordained in equal numbers.  The Bishops constitute the other House.  Both Houses must agree in order for legislation to pass.  Careful rules of engaging issues are set forth and legislation is enacted by a majority vote with both Houses concurring.  About as New Testament as one can get in a society as complex as ours.

Moral theology is fairly gray all over.  It has black and white parts that are represented by the Ten Commandments.  The rest of what is known as Law, was to guide the people in the conduct of daily life...a life that was lived in the midst of several cultures.  Cultures came and went.  Change in living arrangements shifted and evolved.  The community of the Hebrew people seen in Exodus is very different from the one in which Jesus grew up and in which Jesus established a new and different way of being in relationship ... with God and with one another.  This was a radical departure from the fundamental laws of his time.  That's what led to his crucifixion.

No instructions were left regarding how succeeding generations and cultures were to meet the particular conditions of their time.  A lot of what we now know as science was, to the  folks of the First Century, the work of demons or a punishment from God.  Leprosy can be cured.  In Jesus day, it was a sign of uncleanness and warranted expulsion from the faith community.  Jesus incorporated all kinds of folks into his circle of teaching.  Some of those folks had already been excluded from the Jewish faith community.

The current exclusivity of the Church is part of what one might call its "demise."  I don't see demise.  I see reordering and restructuring.  It's a gray area, because moral theology is a messy business.  Always has been.  Someone always goes away disappointed at the outcome.

Human sexuality is really not much a part of biblical teaching.  The Levitical Code was responding to surrounding cultures who thought it just fine to abuse boys...and girls...treat women as chattel...and engage in activity that was outside that of faithfulness.  That part has not changed.  What has changed is our understanding of sexual orientation.  In early Greek and Roman cultures, dalliances in the public baths with same sex members was an often abusive game.  Now, we understand abuse, can legislate against it and separated being gay or lesbian from that behavior...knowing that orientation to be something that isn't a choice and can lead to healthy, lifelong partnerships.

Do I get it?  No, not altogether.  I am a theologian and pastor by trade.  That does not make me able to know the depth and breadth of God any more than Moses could or did.  I say my prayers and live in community...trusting the Holy Spirit in the greater councils.  The Holy Spirit still speaks and, to borrow from Paul, creation is still groaning toward its full birth.  Things are still unfolding.

No, I am not on a slippery slope here.  Most official moral theologians will say something similar.  I've been reading and studying for years.  There is a "right" and "wrong" based upon both our relationship with God and with one another.  "That's the function of the Ten Words (10 Commandments).  Jesus summed it up thusly:  You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul and mind; You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself."  Pretty straight forward foundation for a moral code.  We simply are not doing this very well right now.  We get this right, and I truly believe the rest will come round right.

Love and Blessings,


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