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Doing a New Thing

Date: 14/09/2003/Speaker: Rev Dr Yap

Safehaven Worship Service
September 14, 2003
Doing a New Thing
Psalm 27

After the election of Bishop Gene Robinson was confirmed by the Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States last month he was interviewed by the media. Among the various responses he said this:

“And I think that’s because God is doing a new thing. God has taught us about people of color, God has taught us about women, and now God is teaching us about gays and lesbians as being God’s children.”

Referring to his Episcopal election he commented: “It’s not so much a dream as a calling from God,”
In spite of the sharp criticisms and false accusations leveled against him, he sensed it was a divine call that he could neither evade nor withdraw. It was not really a personal challenge to his conservative church or a fight for gay liberation although it had a significant impact upon them. For true to his calling he wanted primarily to be known as kind and compassionate person. He reflected:
“ I think I can do more for gay and lesbian folk in the Church by being a good bishop than by being
the gay bishop.”

A remarkable person who has won the hearts and minds of the Episcopalians/Anglicans in his diocese in New Hampshire had also won the votes of 60% of the clergy and lay persons in the national Convention. He has become somewhat iconic – symbolizing the new thing that God has done. God some years ago ordained the first woman clergy person from Hong Kong in the Anglican Church. In reality God has ordained a number of gays all these years in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. However, Bishop Robinson is the first openly avowed homosexual to be consecrated bishop in the history of the world-wide Anglican Communion. Along the way the sacred cows of divorce, and cohabitation were also toppled. What God has done in Bishop Robinson has tremendous impact upon not only the Church but also upon other denominations and religions and the secular world.

I am of the conviction that God who makes all things new has done this new thing at this appropriate time. As Bishop Spong has put it succinctly “It is clearly an idea whose time has come” and I must add even in Singapore and it is unstoppable.

Even in this secular society of Singapore the time has come quite unexpectedly. I for one did not expect our Prime Minister to say what he did in his interview with Time magazine and I quote from the article: “Prime Minister Goh says his government allows gay employees into its ranks, even in sensitive positions. The change in policy, inspired at least in part by the desire not to exclude talented foreigners who are gay, is being implemented without fanfare, Goh says, to avoid raising the hackles of more conservative Singaporeans. So let it evolve, in time the population will understand that some people are born that way, Goh says. We are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me.”

Not in my wildest dreams nor even in my optimistic moments could I imagine the Prime Minister of Singapore – a highly regulated country widely known to be restrictive in personal freedom and the society and church which are admittedly conservative in attitude – institute such an enlightened policy. Yes, God is doing a new thing in a secular society and in the church here in Singapore. God is doing this new thing not exclusively through Christians but people of other faiths and even those who do not claim any faith.

The point I want to emphasize here is that God is at work. God is at work still. But the traditional image of God is that God is the Creator of the universe has finished the work and now sits back and allows it to run its course. Occasionally God may intervene and come to earth to respond to the prayer requests of the faithful and help them. Another traditional view is that God is all-powerful and God alone is doing everything and even allow evil and suffering of the people for a purpose that we cannot fully comprehend. There is yet another traditional concept of God who is related to all that is good is engaged in spiritual warfare now with Satan who is the cause of all that is evil in this world. Our understanding of the nature of God determines how we view the world and God’s relationship to it. On the occasion when Jesus healed the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethsaida on the Sabbath, he was criticized by the Jews for breaking the Sabbath law through this act of healing. It was recorded in the Gospel of John that Jesus answered them: “My Father is working still and I am working.”

Yes, we want to affirm that God to whom we worship is God who is at work throughout his created world and beyond and it is still working among us. Because God is working we like Jesus must be working too. In obedience we are called to work as if everything depends upon us and pray as if everything depends upon God. God continues to work out God’s purposes for creation in us, around us, through us and in spite of us. In the struggles in life we cannot just say that we lay our burdens on the feet of God and let God take over. In our prayers we cannot just tell God to do what we wish for and then just wait for it to happen. At all times and in all situations we have to make ourselves available to work with God in doing the new thing.

Today I come here to celebrate what God has done through Bishop Robinson and even Prime Minister Goh. We thank God. In doing so we are aware of more new things that need to be done in the days ahead. In the first Press Conference that Bishop Robinson gave soon after he was confirmed in his Episcopal election at the Convention he recited in its entirely Psalm 27. It was signally relevant at that moment of time. He intentionally revealed his gentle forgiving spirit and his strong faith which endeared him to the people he served in his parish. He expressed his faith with the opening words “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” We need no longer fear but have courage. He committed himself to the work ahead. “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” Being in the Lord’s house, beholding and worshipping the Lord, and inquiring about the Lord’s ways is what we should seek to do too. He then confessed his hope that “he shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” We live in hope that God’s rule will come on earth as it is heaven.

We know with a certainty that many more new things need to be done. We still have a long way to go and in the words of the New England poet Robert Frost “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy morning.” “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” Around us there is still so much hatred, so much violence, so much injustice. You and I have promises to God to keep and a long ways to go before we sleep.

You are more aware than I am and continue to be a victim of the stance of the institutional Church and the views of a conservative community. It is not only in the area of human sexuality but also in the sphere of human community. People face many problems in these uncertain times in society.
You and I have lots of work to do and we must participate and witness to the new thing that God is
doing continuously.

I came across a sermon that Bishop Robinson preached that resonates with me. He was sharing the familiar story of the healing of the man lame from birth at the gate of the Temple named Beautiful.
This cripple knew his condition. In the eyes of the purity laws of his strict Jewish society he was regarded as unclean. The religious powers had determined his place in society. The same Levitical laws which were so severe to the males who had sex with one another has this to say to physically handicapped people like me.

Leviticus 21:14-20 “For no one who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread to God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame or one who has a mutilated place or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scales or crushed testicles.”

It was this issue that those who challenged my Episcopal election raised in 1968. I do not qualify because I am physically handicapped. God did a new thing for me then.

Yes all such physically challenged or differently abled people were relegated to stay at the gate of the Temple and not allowed to venture in to worship God. The cripple had resigned himself to a life of begging for alms. He was told to regard himself as a sinner unworthy to be in the presence of God. Since he was born lame it was the price that he had to pay for the sins of his father and forefathers. The generational sins have filtered down to him. He was looked upon as a sinner.

Along came Peter and John who gave him not silver and gold which they had none but healing and liberation. He was able to walk again and no longer carried the stigma of being unclean or imperfect. He was set free from what has closeted and chained him all these years. His rightful place was not outside the Temple but inside. He no longer had to beg for alms outside at the gate but could offer bread to worship God inside the Temple. No wonder he leapt and danced and celebrated in the presence of God. This man who was pushed to the periphery of religious life bounced back to the very center of religious activity. He saw himself accepted as a child of God.

In the words of Bishop Robinson to his community: “You and I have been that lame beggar, believing what the Church told us: that our infirmity made us unacceptable to God; that we were responsible for our own shame; and that we dared not come any closer than the gate of the Temple. And then, for you and me and other gay Christians, someone comes along and touches us in the Name of Jesus, and we are no longer crippled, no longer victims of our own oppression, no longer estranged from the God who made us. And so we come here today – Inside the “temple” – to shout and leap and dance and praise the God who has saved us and made us whole. And though we too are warned to stop our shouting and to go back to our place outside the gates, like Peter and like the lame man, how can we NOT tell the story of our own salvation at the hands of a loving God?!”

He goes on to add: “You and I need to tell the story of our salvation in Christ in such a way that they can recognize Christ. …Talk about how God has come into your life and touched you and healed you and loved you so much it makes you want to leap and dance. Only then will their hearts be warmed. Only then will Jesus have a chance to heal their infirmity.”

It is not only the mere telling our stories of our personal relationship to God and how God accepts and affirms each one of us. There are other stories that require telling and those are the stories of the actual living out of our transformed lives. We bear witness to God through our lives. It is not what we say but who we are and what we do that makes a more telling story.

Bishop Robinson is right on target when he wants more to be known as a good bishop. He wants to tell new stories of how kind and compassionate he is in his work in his church and his involvement in society. God is doing the new thing in him and when people see the work of the good bishop they see God working in the world. The healed cripple went inside the Temple to praise God. Scripture has not recorded how he returned to the world and the way he praised God through his life. Each one of us has to tell this new story and to do the new thing. By what we do we are showing to the world also what God is doing around us.

Allow me to share a personal note. I am always reluctant to do it and this occasion calls me to do something new. As I reflect upon my life and what God has done to me I can point to some formative influences. God helped me to deal with my injury when I was beaten up for no reason by a Japanese military police who was drunk. Then came the death of my father when I was at the age of fifteen. These sad and traumatic events occurred towards the end of World War II. I had missed almost four years of schooling and resumed at the secondary school level. At that tender age I was forced to contemplate about my own future under very strained and difficult circumstances. My Christian friends brought me to church and I was fortunate to be under the theological guidance of missionaries who were not conservative in theology and instead possess a social passion of helping the needy. The Methodist college and seminary education in the United States provided me with the sound theological base for my ministry especially to those who are poor and marginalized. I say this to you to highlight that is absolutely essential as you inquire of the Lord that you get a good understanding of the nature of God and how God relates to people and creation. Let me be candid in saying that the prevailing theological climate in Singapore is such that it cannot liberate itself from its narrow conservative orientation. There is the tunnel vision in seeing Scripture narrowly. Most of the church leaders are threatened by change and want to remain and continue to subscribe to the theology of the 19 th century in the 21 st century. That is why we have the official conservative and traditional views of the institutional churches on a number of theological, social and political issues.

This stance is also seen in a report from the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement in Britan which is the largest and most influential one and where Bishop Robinson is going to speak at its annual conference next month. The report indicated that:

The great number of major denominations in Britain, as in most other Western countries, have made policy statements regarding homosexuality which, if are not out-rightly hostile, display an ambiguity which allows a grudging toleration of gay orientation if not gay relationships. This means that, for the most part, lesbian and gay Christians can be said to be particularly disadvantaged in that they are subject to discrimination in both wider society and ecclesiastical structures.

Theologically speaking, gay Christians are largely liberal in orientation. Most have embraced a “higher criticism” of scripture. Internally, the movement embraces an eloquent theology – forming a developing ideology which itself constitutes an important “resource.” It is one which largely focuses on Christ’s teachings of love …Homosexuality is regarded as part of the divine plan of creation; that homosexual people are present as a sign of the rich diversity of God’s work, and that the expression of homosexuality is as natural and good in every way as heterosexuality.

United Methodist Bishop Jack Tuell who was my Boston University School of Theology classmate in his search for theological truth depended not only on the word of Scripture alone but following what is called the Wesleyan quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience came to the same conclusion when he preached:
The new thing that God is doing in our midst right now is to show us that homosexuality is not simply an act or acts of willful disobedience to God’s law and commandments, but it is a state of being. It is an identity that God has given to some of His children. It is who they are.
I hope that in days to come I may be able to explore with you in the development of such a theology that will provide an adequate resource and equip us to follow Christ’s teachings of love of neighbour and of self. Such theological understanding will undergird our lives as we each in our own way seek to be faithful and allow God to do the new thing in us, with us and through us.

O God, take our lips and speak through them; take our minds and think with them; take our hearts and love through them. Set our lives to work with you and for you in the fulfilling of the purposes which you have created us to live in this created world of yours. In Christ’s name we pray. AMEN.