Certainly not to the same degree that little Roman Catholic girls and boys think of their priests as virtually divine, we thought of our pastors and visiting preachers at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads as nearly divine. Pastors were almost as close to God as almost any human being could ever hope to be; the only people who were closer to divinity than preachers of the gospel were missionaries.
When I became committed at the age of 14 to a life of preaching and ministry, not really having very much understanding at all about what that might mean and would mean, I assumed that I could not live the typical adolescent life as it was often lived in Halls Crossroads. This meant no cursing. It meant no getting drunk under the bleachers after the football games. It certainly meant no hanky-panky with dates; now my parents had already told me in great detail about the no hanky-panky part of teen life. It was stunning to find the number of mothers who wanted me to date their daughters because they, the mothers, were sure that in my company their daughters, who often preferred to be out with someone else such as one of the school’s star athletes, would be safe and secure from all alarm, as it were.
I was stunned when I arrived at my little church-related liberal arts college and found that some of the preacher boys (we did, surprisingly, have some preacher girls at the time, but they were not guilty of this) some of the preacher boys drank alcohol, maybe not enough to get drunk. I’d been taught in my church that even a drop was evil and, therefore, wrong to drink by anyone–especially clergy and clergy-to-be so I was stunned. I was also surprised that as terms passed, couples kind of formed, and there seems to have been, even with some of the pious religion majors, the possibility of hanky panky before marriage.
Now I can’t say for sure that such encounters took place because, thank goodness, I was never an eyewitness to any such event, but I, as others, had impressions, and I, as others, picked up on hints here and there. Even though it was a church-related college with a high number of students very devoted to the church and majoring in numerous fields other than religion, it was abundantly clear that the highest moral standards on campus were reserved for those who indicated that they probably would be going into the ministry for a profession and, thus, probably were majoring in religion. At the end of those four amazing years, great years in my life, I, as a preacher boy, may not have met the expectations of everyone on campus who watched for such things, but I have to tell you I came out pretty squeaky clean.
In seminary it was more of the same except the intensity surrounding moral standards was greater. Why would I say that? Well, nearly everybody on campus was going into some kind of ministry–either the preaching ministry or the music ministry or the ministry of Christian education or the ministry of Christian social work. Among us all, who had the highest moral standards to uphold? Those students who wanted to be involved regularly with hanky panky could get married; they were old enough, and there was sufficient financial aid back in those days to allow for couples who desired to get married before seminary graduation to do so. After all, didn’t the Apostle Paul himself insist that it was better to get married than to “burn,” meaning to be excessively lustful? Well yes, of course. How could a seminarian not take the advice of Paul?
It got juicier. Someday there will be a reality show titled “Seminary.” Rumors floated around about the possibility of gay students on our campus, and the presumption was that they were finding ample opportunities to become involved in sexual activities on the “sacred” campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Even back in the late 70’s, I thought it wasn’t anybody’s business what gay students were doing if they were doing anything at all, but I did find out by the time I joined the faculty many years after my initial arrival there that one of the staff people who had the title Seminary Chaplain had as his secondary job, his nonpublic job, the task of sniffing out gay students so they could be properly reported, reprimanded, and expelled while being told that they would have to change their sexual orientation if they ever intended to do anything in ministry. If they changed–as if they could, they were asked to complete their seminary studies elsewhere, essentially never to return to the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When students like these were expelled, some gay and some falsely charged, they simply disappeared, quickly without explanation; without warning suddenly one or more of your friends were gone. The assumption was clear, though Southern was one of the most liberal seminaries in the country in those days–certainly not today: gay was synonymous with immorality, and blatantly immoral persons were unfit to serve in ministry.
Back in those days the American Psychiatric Association was just beginning to speak out and say that homosexuality was something other than a curable disease or disorder. I don’t know how many years passed before mental health professionals, those who were free from fundamentalist Christian bias, would say with confidence that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice, that people don’t decide to be gay or straight. In almost all cases, genetics made the determination.
Just a few weeks ago, highly regarded televangelist Joel Osteen–and I don’t mean highly regarded by me–was interviewed on CNN by Soledad O’Brien, and the subject of homosexuality came up. Since Osteen, who puts down very few people, has been known to slam, in his sweet way, lesbians and gays, the line of discussion was not inappropriate. Reiterating his position that homosexuality is sinful, Osteen was asked if he chose to be straight. He said, “No. Being straight is a natural part of who I am.” One respondent wondered how long it would take Osteen to be enlightened by his own words.
Since today’s sermon has much to do with moral standards, I think it’s important to point out that someone’s sexuality is not a matter of morality or immorality. That is not the umbrella under which it is to be considered or discussed. There are immoral straight people, and there are immoral gay/lesbian people; there are highly moral straight people and highly moral gay/lesbian people. Surely, it is self-evident by this point to people who read only news summaries that there’s no choice in the matter.
Two things here. One, everyone who considers herself or himself a follower of Jesus has the same expectations for moral behavior as any other follower of Jesus. The clergy must not be expected to be more pious than lay people, non-clergy types. It is a false dichotomy to try to hold clergy to a different set of moral responsibilities than non-clergypersons. Two, Jesus who could have claimed moral superiority over every one of his contemporaries instead said, “My place is with those people almost everyone else hates. My place is with those people that almost everyone else thinks they’re too good to be with: fishermen who stink because they can never quite get the smell of their profession washed off, tanners who are never quite able to wash all the animal blood off their hands; prostitutes whom so many people believe they can look down on, and tax collectors–turncoat traitors. How could Jesus be so caring and affirming? When he waded out into the Jordan River with his cousin John the Baptist, he said to John, “Baptize me.” John said, “Your morality is exemplary. There’s no need to baptize you; nothing about you needs to be fixed. I can’t baptize you because as hard as I try my morality pales in comparison to yours so I am not worthy to guide you through this ritual.”
Jesus said to John in a conversation I imagine, “Morality isn’t a contest. You’re an amazingly moral person, and you’ve inspired me since we were boys. I want you to baptize me so that I can have the privilege of saying to myself and to the world as it were that I am committed to morality but not to what the Pharisees call morality–wearing fancy synagogue clothing and bragging at religious gatherings about how good they are and how frequently as well as how powerfully they pray. Measure my piety in terms of how well I do ministering to those people who need me, people who have no one else to whom they can turn for help of whatever type. Measure my piety based on a morality that drives me day by day to find the people most likely to believe that they are Godforsaken and out of the reach of God’s love.”
There are those who believe that morality for them is keeping an eye on who sips or gulps too much from the wineskins or making sure that they will not come into contact with anyone who has ever been accused any kind of sexual misconduct. We don’t keep moral standards to gain the praise and admiration of other people; neither do we maintain high moral standards to impress God; rather, we keep high moral standards because it is the most respectful way for us to treat others as well as ourselves, and it is the strongest foundation for any community, local or worldwide.
Poor President Carter; he suffered greatly because of condemning arrows shot his way for giving an interview to Playboy magazine and confessing to the interviewer that, yes, he himself–faithful Christian Sunday School teacher, backbone leader then in the Plains [Georgia] Baptist Church, husband of the beautiful Roslyn Carter–had been guilty of thinking lustful thoughts in his heart about other women. From what I heard about the article (of course, I never actually saw the article since it was published in Playboy magazine) Carter was frank without being in any way crass.
OK. OK. The looks of suspicion on your faces force me to be moral enough to tell you the facts. I did go out and purchase my own copy of Playboy magazine at the ripe old age of 23 while in the employment of my college as an admissions counselor. I knew if I went to the only local store in Jefferson City, Tennessee, that sold such merchandise and if I were recognized by a student or a staff member that I could lose my job. Forget the potential tattle tail in the same store; somehow the person who tells gets a lesser punishment if not a reward. I was determined to read that article, though, so I put on my best simple disguise. I had an oversized hat down over most of my head. I wore huge sunglasses, the kind that fit over prescription glasses you’re already wearing, and I topped it all off with a huge overcoat in very warm weather. I probably looked more than flasher than a naive country boy wanting to read up on the highly moral man who’d had the courage to admit he was less than perfect. I managed to make my purchase and get back to my car unrecognized; now my goal was to get home without having a car wreck, giving the Jefferson County police the opportunity to find the magazine in my possession.
One of the many reasons that a large number of clergy have double lives is that they don’t want their congregants to see them living as they really live. This does not mean that such clergy are immoral; most of them are highly moral. They just know they can’t hold up under the weight of the increasing load of expectations put on their backs by congregants and communities. Don’t be critical of them.
I told you some months ago that we have more and more clergy in this country who claim that they are forced, in order to be able to support themselves and their families financially, to climb into a pulpit week after week only to preach what they don’t believe. I would wish for all my sisters and brothers in the ministry a ministry position where they are free to be who they are in every way.
I don’t think Silverside has two sets of moral expectations–one set for clergy and another set for non-clergy. For that I am most grateful. It is a gift for someone in a leadership role to be given by her or his constituents the freedom to be the real person he or she is and, with that, the freedom to make a mistake and to correct it, the freedom to be real and the freedom to be human. Thank you.
Some politicians are also held to a higher moral standard by their constituents than the constituents expect of themselves. As with clergy so with politicians at times–we have the same way of coping: a public life and a private life except that thanks to the press there’s very little private life left for anyone in public service or otherwise in the public eye. That’s atrocious. Having said that, however, I have to say that I do believe certain responsibilities carry with them a standard of minimally acceptable moral behavior along with some consistency between public life and private life. An example would be the school teacher who could rally for the safety and well being of children all day at school while lurking in the darkness after school in search of a child to molest.
We want our ranking political leaders to have a collection of moral commitments and behaviors so that they will live before us and the world as respectable human beings. The President of United States should not be having an affair with a White House intern even though nothing about the relationship itself was illegal; it was distasteful because of the circumstances in which it was lived out. A President and a White House intern shouldn’t be engaged in hanky panky, even though President Clinton said there was hanky but no panky. I think we, his constituents, had the right to say, “Oh, how inappropriate,” but not, “He’s a reprobate who needs to be drop kicked back to Arkansas.” Only Mrs. Clinton, I think, had the right to say, “Intolerable and unacceptable for a husband.” I don’t think his inappropriate choices diminished his ability to be a leader just as the same kinds of activities failed to negate the contributions of other occupants of the Oval Office before President Clinton arrived. We can be grateful that the truly moral Kenneth Starr is now the president of Baylor University; Baylor is in great hands.
Much of what I’m talking about today is reflected in the ancient biblical story of King David and his unsavory affair with Bathsheba, beautiful wife of the a ranking officer in King David’s military forces. King David who already had numerous wives as was typical for monarchs in his era and also typical for the common man who could afford more than one wife. According to my Hebrew Scripture Professor in college, Dr. Ben Philbeck, a man could have as many wives as he could provide for and that included any children who came along. So David had eight or so wives along with ten or so concubines, and why he needed to be looking for others no one could explain in polite language.
One day he was standing at the highest point in his palace surveying his grand kingdom when his eyes happened upon a residence not terribly far from the palace where a lovely naked woman, a woman of some means obviously, was being attended to by her female servants, clearly taking a bath on a raised terrace. Normally, it was regarded as a private place; there were only a couple of spots in the city where someone might have seen her up so high. One of those places would have been a higher terrace or porch at the palace. Well, King David began to make it his practice to go to his highest porch about that same time every day and glance over towards the home where this woman, Kate Middleton–I mean, Bathsheba–lived with her husband, Uriah, who happens to have been, as I’ve said, a higher up in King David’s armed forces.
That sacred marital relationship notwithstanding, in time King David called for Bathsheba to come to the palace. That wasn’t exactly the kind of invitation one could decline. So she arrived, and there was royal hanky panky. An affair began. A child was conceived. Bathsheba participated, but it’s hard to be terribly critical of her since saying, “No,” to the King for much of any reason could lead to negative consequences. She did tell David that she still loved her husband.
David didn’t like to hear the word, “No,” and he didn’t like failing to get whatever it was he wanted. He therefore ordered Uriah to fight on the front lines where he would almost certainly be killed, leaving Bathsheba a widow, and that’s exactly what happened. He was now free to marry the late Uriah’s wife.
Scumbag, you say? David, the greatest king in Israel’s history, really? What were his moral standards or lack of same? What some people not the least of whom is brilliant Hebrew Bible scholar Tom McDaniel, one of our own members, says about King David, and I apologize for using Dr. McDaniel’s advanced scholarly language, is that David was a “nut case and a jerk.”
Even so, many Israelites looked back on their history and called David, without a doubt, their greatest King. By the way, a couple of Gospel writers were at pains to show that Jesus was David’s blood descendent since some of the Jews believed that if a deliverer ever came to rescue them once and for all from their oppressors, he would be “of the house and lineage of David.”
Is there a different set of moral standards for political and other power people over against the rank and file citizens of any nation including ours? No, even though a beaten down President Nixon told David Frost in an interview that if the President of United States does it [whatever it is] it’s not illegal.
Well, he found out differently although he certainly wasn’t the only president ever to have crossed the line between the legal and the illegal. Andrew Jackson blatantly ignored federal law when he ordered the military to enter the reservation of the Cherokee Native Americans in north Georgia in order to force them out of their homes and onto a pathway that would eventually lead them to Oklahoma if they lived to make the whole journey. Many didn’t. And because of the hardship and death that filled their days, the Cherokees called the pitiful pathway on which they were forced to walk, “The Trail of Tears.”
If there is a law supposedly applicable to all citizens of the nation then no one is above the law. President Theodore Roosevelt said: “No one is above the law and no one is below it: nor do we ask anyone’s permission when we ask her or him to obey it.” Should someone try to live above the law because of popularity, power, prestige, position then we have a serious moral failing crippling us. If, however, a leader is relentlessly criticized simply because she or he has a different set of moral standards than the critics, we have a completely different matter before us.
Remember that a moral standard or principle is not a law so spending time harpooning Bill Clinton or John Kennedy or any high ranking person in some other culture around the world who failed to live up to the moral standards we set for them is a waste of time and typically is done to make the critic feel better about himself or herself as well as to try to discredit any positive contribution the leader may have made. Victor Hugo wrote: “When individuals try to lift themselves above others, they are dragged down by the mass, either by ridicule or slander.”