This a text version of my sermon from 6/18/16. My thanks to Bob Weir for his comments at the conclusion of the Dead and Co show from Bonnaroo . Folks often ask where sermons come from, and this one in large part started with those comments.
Just a few hours after the horrific events in Orlando last Sunday morning the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, a man by the name of Dan Patrick, sent out a tweet on his official Twitter account that read ‘God cannot be mocked – a man reaps what he sows.’ It is a well known quote from the Christian Bible, Galatians chapter 7 verse 6, that is generally read as a warning to people to remember that their actions have consequences. But in this context, with the posting of the tweet right after the shooting, and with Patrick’s history of hostility towards the LGBT community, the message was seen in a different light – namely, as his way of suggesting that people who are gay deserve to be punished because of who they are, the lifestyle the live, and the people they love.
As you may imagine the reaction to the tweet was swift and fierce. It was widely condemned, and within a short time Mr. Patrick had deleted it from his account, once again demonstrating that politicians will stay strong in their views until they realize just how unpopular those views are. But you almost can’t blame Mr. Patrick for what he did, in fact you might have expected it. He comes from a religious community and religious background where such views are not only common, but also commonly accepted. People in his community will often justify the homophobic positions they take by citing scripture, knowing that there are verses in the Hebrew Bible – what they would call the Old Testament – that on the surface seem to forbid homosexual behavior.
There are two things I would like to say about that this morning. The first is this – if those folks want to read their scripture literally, then they should stick with it all the way, and not just pick and choose certain verses. Because it also says in the Hebrew Bible that a child who insults his parents should be stoned to death at the city gate, and I don’t see these folks tweeting about that. It also says, by the way, that pork is a forbidden food, but the last I checked the Great State of Texas was pretty well known for its BBQ pork ribs – not that that is something a rabbi knows much about – and I don’t see anyone in the Texas legislature trying to ban pork ribs or Dan Patrick tweeting about them.
And by the way, when thinking about how we should relate to the LGBT community there are many other biblical verses we might consider. How about the one in Genesis chapter 1 where it says that human beings are created in God’s image. All human beings – white, black, brown, gay, straight, man, woman. All people, regardless of their background, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, are a reflection of God’s image on this earth – and therefore deserving of equal respect and dignity. Maybe the Lieutenant Governor forgot about that verse when he sent his tweet. What about the verse in Leviticus 19, perhaps the best known verse in the entire Bible – Love your neighbor as yourself. Or the first half of that same verse, less frequently cited but worth mentioning today – לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמיך – you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellow – that might have been a better one for Lieutenant Governor to send out after what happened in Orlando.
So that is thing number one. If you want to talk scripture we can talk scripture all day long, and what you’ll see, if you are honest and looking at the big picture, is that the Bible is far more interested in protecting the fundamental rights and dignity of a person than it is in the person’s sexual identity.
Thing number two is this – the Bible should not be read literally anyway. It is an ancient document that expresses a deep wisdom about the world, that defines values that we use to guide our lives even today, and that for Jews certainly lays out the history of our people and our covenant with God. But it is also a reflection of what the world was like 2500 years ago, and so it expresses certain ideas and values that today we simply know are wrong. That is why Judaism has never read the Bible in a fundamentalist way, in other words literally. Instead, Judaism figured out a way to keep the Bible meaningful and central to faith and worship – after all, here we are this morning, still taking the Torah out of the ark and reading from it – but while keeping it central to introduce changes into the practices the Bible lays out, so the tradition over time can come to terms with new understandings we have of our world and ourselves.
These changes don’t happen all at once. Sometimes they take years, sometimes even decades. But they happen. If they didn’t we wouldn’t be gathered today in a prayer service in a sanctuary, we would instead be offering animal sacrifices, as the Torah tells us to do on the Sabbath day. If the tradition didn’t change over time there wouldn’t be Hanukkah, or a Passover seder, or the lighting of Shabbat candles, all of which are not mentioned in the Bible. The changes in terms of how the tradition understands gay rights have been slow, but they have happened, in the Conservative Movement mostly over the last decade. When I was in rabbinical school if you were gay you had to be in the closet, and if it was discovered you were gay you were asked to leave the seminary. That was 20 years ago.
But today the Conservative Movement ordains openly gay rabbis. That became official policy of the Movement, and the first openly gay rabbi was ordained in 2011, just 5 years ago. The Movement has created a wedding ceremony for gay couples in the last couple of years. And in response to the Orlando shootings, the Movement released an official statement that in part reads as follows:
“This shooting rampage targeted the LGBT community in the midst of Pride month, a time where the LGBT community comes together to publicly acknowledge and celebrate their identities, their common history, and their struggle for social recognition and equality. The RA has passed multiple resolutions calling on the community to ‘work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life, deplore violence against gays and lesbians, encourage inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in our congregations, and increase our awareness of issues facing gay and lesbian Jews.’ We know that we stand with people of good will of all faiths in continuing this work.” And the statement concluded with this sentence: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the members of the LGBT community, their families, their friends, and their loved ones.”
That is the kind of statement that makes me proud to be a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi.
I am about ready to wrap up my remarks this morning, and I suspect you are about ready for me to wrap up my remarks, but if you’ll permit me there is one last verse I would like to point out from the Bible, actually from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse I feel the Lieutenant Governor of Texas should be more familiar with. This from Numbers chapter 5, verses 6 and 7 – “When a person commits any wrong toward a fellow, thus breaking faith with God, that person shall confess the wrong he has done and make restitution for it.”
If he does know that verse, then the next tweet Dan Patrick sends out might just be an apology. But while we wait for it, we’ll move forward, supporting the LGBT community in any and every way we can.