The Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW) for the Day:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was in college, I spent most of time trying to discover what my calling in life was. I had grown up in a small town in which a young person had an easier time knowing who one was. There were 48 in my graduation class. I then moved to Lubbock (We called it the “Metropolis.”) for my undergraduate education at Texas Tech University. There were more than 6000 in my freshman class! I was lost. There was not much in all the mass of students that could mirror back to me who I was.
My faith had been very important to me growing up in that small town. Unfortunately, even my faith was in confusion. I had grown up in a traditional Baptist home. Faith in that context was about feeling good about oneself. In other words, it was a faith based on how one felt. If one felt good, then faith seemed to be working. If not, then one would fall into doubt about one’s faith. In that context I began to see a principle that one needed to be “born again” again and again. I began to fall in to deeper insecurity about myself and about my faith.
During this time I voraciously studied everything I could work into my curriculum of study: music, Greek, Italian, literature, and philosophy. It was in a philosophy class that I was introduced to the writings of Paul Tillich. Tillich was a German theologian banned by the Nazis and force to flee to the United States where he was immediately offered a position at Union Seminary in New York by none other than Reinhold Niebuhr. He later taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago. I can’t say that I understood Tillich. I didn’t have the background for him. But I was able enough to feel life emerging as I read him. Maybe it was just the promise of the title: The Courage to Be.
I was hungry for more. One day I walked into our book store, and there in front of me were the three volumes of his sermons: The Eternal Now, The New Being, and The Shaking of the Foundations. In the old Scribners editions there was a picture of him on the cover. I looked at the photo and thought to myself, “He doesn’t look all that dangerous.” For you see, I had been warned by my fundamentalists sources that Tillich was dangerous. He didn’t believe in God. “Hmm,” I thought. A theologian who doesn’t believe in God. That’s got to be interesting.
In reality Tillich announced that God does not “exist.” To assert that God exists would make God an object among the objects of this world, but God is not an object for us to analyze or to sum up. God isn’t a being; God is Being Itself. Tillich admonished his students to wait for the “God behind God.” The God behind God is the God who emerges when the God created by human beings in our likeness is discredited and exposed as being empty of the life that we seek from the source of our being, the ground of our being.
I grabbed one of those volumes of Tillich’s sermons from the rack and promptly went to the checkout to pay and get out before anyone saw me with my eager hands holding that book. I felt like an adolescent who had just bought a copy of Playboy. “Do you want a sack?” said the check-out person. “Yes,” I said enthusiastically, relieved that no one would know just what kind of literature I was buying.
On that day I devoured several of Tillich’s sermons. I understood them, and I was coming alive. The first sermon was entitled, “You are not alone.” There he comforted his young reader with the promise of the Spiritual Presence which was revealed through the New Being who was Jesus Christ. It was then that I discovered the old, new faith filled with the renewing power of a tradition that held out hope as sure as it bestowed the gift of faith, not faith in myself but faith in the God behind God.
This discovery actually caused me to shudder. I didn’t understand the trembling in my own body, but I knew not to turn away at the “shaking of my foundations.” There was life there. It was at that point I knew I was at a breaking point with my religious tradition, but I did not know where to go. I still count it my greatest fortune that I went to my student pastor, Dan Yeary. I told him what I was doing and whom I was reading. He didn’t say much as he listened to me. I took that as a sign of disapproval. I started to leave. He had turned back to his work on the desk, when I blurted out the question, “Do you think it is alright for me to read this stuff?” Dan rotated his chair back towards me and looked up saying, “Robert, of course, it is OK for you to read that stuff. You are free!”
And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)
Now you need to know that it was then and there that I found a new identity of one no longer characterized by the group to which I belonged but by the ongoing activity of God by which the old static understanding of life, of society, and of self could only be understood in the dynamic of a relationship with the illusive presence of God always calling us to the new thing that God is doing. It is in that new thing that we find ourselves being called out to be that which God would renew us to be for the future which belongs only to God.
Our readings for Reformation Sunday are replete with this world view. Jeremiah speaks of “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” (Jeremiah 31:32). The psalmist sings,
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea. (Psalm 46:2)
Also, St. Paul declares the future which God is doing by breaking down the dividing wall between Gentile and Jew. He declares that no one has an advantage. Everyone is estranged from God, and no amount of emotional, moral or intellectual achievement will connect us properly to the God behind God. We have only to wait on the God who is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This God will not maintain our status quo but recreates all that is so that it conforms to God’s justice.
Dear brothers and sisters, that is where we stand before the God behind God, the God of Jesus Christ who grants us an identity beyond race; color; creed; gender; and, yes sexual orientation. The righteousness demanded by God is the righteousness demonstrated by God in sending his Son who has the words and who is the Word. This Word is calling us out to a new world.
There is a Reformation going on in the church that is as revolutionary as allowing Gentiles in the church, including African-Americans in the church, and calling women into the full service of the church. The new Reformation will be the realization that God is with every person gay, straight, transgendered, or anywhere on the spectrum of life.
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:22b-26)
You may think it is foolishness to believe in this way. I say, “Yes, it is foolishness, but it is God’s foolishness.” I would rather be on the foolish side of God than on the narrow, sometimes mean-spirited side of human zeal for causes that are all-too willing to ignore the humanity of all people capable of hearing the gospel of God proclaimed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Amen.