Text, Context and the Question of Same-Sex Marriage
By: Foster Freed (reprinted by permission)
A sermon preached at Knox United Church (Parksville, BC) on June 11th, 2006
Genesis 2: 18-25; Luke 11: 42-46; Matthew 11: 25-30
Part One: Texts, mainly the so-called “clobber” passages
I want to begin these remarks with a word of thanks: thanking each and every one of you for the wisdom and civility with which Knox has been engaging the difficult and controversial issue of same-sex marriage. Over these past months, as I have told colleagues about the way in which Knox has approached the same sex marriage question, these colleagues too have expressed admiration for Knox’s willingness to engage this issue in a truly dialogical way. And I want to assure you, as your clergy-person, that I have felt well protected, well-cared for, and well respected throughout this process: knowing that eventually it would be my turn to speak, knowing–in short–that the Sunday morning would eventually arrive when I would have an opportunity to share my own testimony. That morning has now come, and I am grateful to be able to testify before you.
I am grateful: but I am also mindful of the fact that this testimony is both long and, at stretches, may seem quite dry, more like a lecture than a sermon. I apologize, in advance, both for its length and for its dryness, deficiencies that will hopefully be mitigated by the availability of copies of this sermon later this week, for those of you who dose off half-way through. Then again, both the length and the format of this sermon should come as no surprise. On a personal level, I am someone who can find complexity in just about any topic; needless to say, there is no shortage of complexity to be found in the topic of same-sex marriage. As for the idiosyncrasies of the form this sermon takes, in particular its continual wrestling with scripture, surely that is the result of the multi-faceted role I get to play here at Knox Church. For while my “official” title is “minister” (meaning “servant”) the fact remains that my role causes me to serve as pastor, preacher and presider.
As a pastor (the word pastor means shepherd), as a pastor I am deeply aware of the 30% of this congregation who voted against the solemnization of same-sex marriage; if at times some of you who are in favor of same-sex marriage are left with the impression that I am taking an awfully long time to get to where I am going, that has something to do with my pastor’s heart for the 30% who have said either “no” or “not yet”. And while I have no illusion about my ability to change anyone’s mind, I do feel the obligation to testify in a way that at least attempts to address the very real theological concerns that have been identified by those who are struggling with this issue.
Add to that the fact that I am also a preacher: the person who, God willing, will stand before you next Sunday, taking a small snippet from Scripture and trying to help all of us hear God speak to us through that scriptural snippet. In other words, my role here leaves me no choice but to be somewhat conservative, somewhat cautious, where Scripture is concerned. And so, if by the time I finally shut up this morning, some of you are fed up considering a wide variety of Scripture passages as well as a wide variety of questions concerning the appropriate use of Scripture, that has to do with my peculiar formation as a preacher.
Finally, I am here as a Presider: as one of the people who may eventually get to preside at the blessing of a same-sex marriage. That’s why I will be speaking, this morning, as a member of the faith community–as a disciple– rather than as a citizen of Canada. In other words, you will not hear me comment on the appropriateness of the role the Canadian courts have played in pushing same-sex marriage to the forefront of the Canadian social agenda. Nor will I be offering an opinion as to whether it was appropriate for Stephen Harper to announce this past week that he will be reopening the question of the legal status of same-sex marriage through a pending Parliamentary vote. As a citizen of Canada, I know those to be fascinating questions, but they are not my questions this morning.
Nor is my question one that needs to wait for an answer until we see what Parliament decides when that free-vote takes place. This may surprise some of you, but from my perspective: in the unlikely event that Canada’s Parliament does bring a halt to same-sex marriage, in the even unlikelier event that the Supreme Court of Canada permits such a reversal to stand, I believe that my position as a presider would be unchanged. Why? Because the first time I was approached by a gay or lesbian couple to bless their union (even if it were no longer called a marriage) I would face a moment of profound decision. Because calling it a marriage, calling it a union, calling it a pastrami sandwich, doesn’t change the fact that I ought not to be asking God to bless such a union if it represents a relationship that is displeasing to God. Let me be clear on this: the issue for me, personally, is the issue of blessing. Can we ask God to bless the intimate committed relationships–notice that word commitment; this isn’t about promiscuity of either the homo-or heterosexual kind, but about people asking to have committed relationships blessed–can we, with Christian integrity, ask God to bless the intimate, committed relationships of homosexual persons?
That question leaves me no choice but to dive into a series of Biblical texts: including that handful of texts most frequently cited as the reason why same-sex marriage ought not to be blessed by the church of Jesus Christ. Dubbed by some writers in the gay and lesbian communities as the “clobber” passages–in other words, passages with which they are regularly clobbered–an attempt at responding to these texts (however superficially, even in the course of a longer than usual sermon), is an essential part of what I am obliged to do this morning.
And so let’s turn to the so-called clobber passages, passages which I have divided into three categories, the first of which includes those that seem to me simply irrelevant to any sensible conversation around same-sex marriage. First on that list, is the 19th chapter of Genesis, the chapter that tells the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. For those unfamiliar with the story, it concerns Abraham’s cousin Lot, who is living in the city of Sodom; Lot offers hospitality to three angels who are there to see if Sodom is as wicked as they fear it to be. When news of these visitors spreads through the city, the entire community arrives at Lot’s doorstep, demanding to “know” the visitors. It is rightly suggested that the Hebrew verb “to know” used here, has a strong sexual connotation and it is therefore not wrong to suppose that these ruffians were going to rape the three angels. Clearly their behavior was reprehensible, and clearly God was not wrong to condemn the city. The problem, however, is that this is not a story about homosexual love, it’s a story about homosexual rape. When a similar story is told in Judges about a mob trying to rape a slave girl, no one interprets that as a condemnation of heterosexuality; in much the same way, no one should interpret the story of Sodom as a condemnation of homosexuality. In light of that distinction, two New Testament passages that mention the Sodom story–Jude verse 7 and II Peter 2: 6-10a–are not germane to this conversation either. The Jude passage speaks of the people of Sodom hungering after “strange flesh”, which most commentators now interpret not as a reference to homosexuality, but as a reference to the fact that the people of Sodom wanted to be sexually intimate with angels. II Peter makes no mention of what the sin of Sodom was and is therefore even more irrelevant. And, for the record, let me note that Ezekiel, describes the sins of Sodom as “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease…,they did not aid the poor and needy.” So much for the Sodom and Gomorrah story.
In this same category of occasionally cited, but irrelevant passages, is a text from Deuteronomy: Deuteronomy 23:17. “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute.” Despite what some older translations suggest (and remember, the accuracy of any English translation needs to be verified), this too is a text that has nothing to say to the contemporary question of same-sex marriage; it has to do with the pagan practice of male and female temple prostitution, a practice that continues to occur in parts of the contemporary world, most notoriously in India. It will be helpful, throughout this morning’s proceedings, to bear in mind that the Biblical writers were surrounded by cultures in which Temple prostitution flourished.
The next category of text I want to look at includes two New Testament passages that may well be relevant, but make use of technical Greek vocabulary that is obscure to us today. They come from 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 and from 1 Timothy 1:10. Both of these texts contain lists of vices, including two that are often translated into English with words that are suggestive of “homosexuality”. That’s not entirely wrong, but it is misleading, because there is no real clarity as to the precise reference of the two Greek words. The first word, malakoi, seems to imply some kind of inappropriate softness on the part of the one to whom it refers; the second word, arsenokoitai, appears to mean a man who is sexually aggressive toward another male. I would be lying were I to pretend that I have discovered any scholarly consensus as to the meaning of these two words. I am most at home, however, with the suggestion of those scholars who argue that the two words are related terms, coming to us from the Greco-Roman realm of male prostitution: the word malakoi describing the soft young men who sold themselves as prostitutes, the word arsenokoitai describing their older, affluent customers. If so, these texts condemn a facet of male homosexuality–indeed, a facet of male sexuality in general–but fail, in my judgment, to say anything relevant about the sort of loving, committed same-sex relationships that Knox has been asked to bless.(1)
That leads, finally, to three passages–supplemented by a fourth–that are undeniably relevant to this conversation. The first two come from Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 reads: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 reads: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Those are, of course, difficult passages; when they were quoted at a recent congregational meeting, even the person who quoted them distanced herself from the death penalty portion although, alas, the Church of Jesus Christ has not always distanced itself from that portion. Beyond that, let me simply raise a few key issues. First, let me note that neither Leviticus text has anything to say about female same-sex relationships; that’s true of all of the Old Testament texts dealing with homosexuality. Second, that very silence leaves open the question as to just what it is that is being condemned here; is the condemnation simply limited to male penetration of the other male?; many scholars believe that to be the case. Thirdly, it needs to be noticed that Leviticus, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, is concerned with forging a distinctive Israelite way of life, against the backdrop of pagan neighbors whose religious practices (including Temple Prostitution and child-sacrifice) were deeply disturbing. Finally, from the beginning of the Christian movement (I’ll return to this theme later) there has been the question of just how normative Leviticus ought to be for the life of the Church. It would be grossly unfair to claim, as is sometimes done, that everything in Leviticus is irrelevant to us today: there is much in the book that we will ignore at our peril. However, discernment is needed, especially when one considers that the powerful Hebrew word that we translate “abomination”, a word used to describe at least some aspect of male-homosexuality, is the same word Leviticus uses in an earlier chapter to describe the eating of shell-fish. Discernment is required!
Much the same can be said of the final clobber passage, Romans 1:21-28. Here, at the start of what is inarguably one of the New Testament’s essential books, the Apostle Paul draws a picture of the “foolishness” of gentile ways, ways that have led to what he describes as “degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.” The context here is important, however: it represents the first stage in an argument addressed to the Jewish members of the Roman church, an argument through which Paul will attempt to show them that their disdain for gentiles is un-called for, since Jewish Christians have no reason to presume that they are any better, leading Paul to exclaim that Christ died for Jew and Gentile alike so that he could have mercy on everyone! (2)
That having been said, it is impossible to deny that Paul expresses discomfort here with what he regards as the “unnaturalness” of same-sex activities. The obvious response is that Paul would be correct if homosexual activities were nothing more than an “unnatural” outlet for those who are heterosexual by nature, but are indulging in homosexual activity just for the heck of it; most Christian gays and lesbians are only too happy to agree with Paul, pointing out that for them it would be a heterosexual relationship that would prove itself “unnatural”. Alas, there is a pretty good comeback to that one…a comeback expressed most articulately by New Testament scholar Robert Gagnon.(3)
Gagnon makes the point that the concept of “naturalness” invoked by Paul in Romans comes neither from Paul’s own imagination nor from the world of ancient Greek philosophy, but is rather the one laid out in the second chapter of Genesis, in which God brings forth an appropriate helpmate, an appropriate sexual partner, for Adam, namely Eve. And so while it may be the case that the scripture passages clearly condemning same-sex activity boil down to simply three (on the one hand, two texts from a book that is seldom used in Christian circles, Leviticus; on the other hand, a far more central passage in a far more central section of the New Testament, namely Romans), Gagnon’s claim is that the real weight of the Bible’s discomfort with homosexuality lies here, with the heterosexual norm established in the opening chapters of Genesis. And so while it may be easy for us simply to ignore Leviticus, and while it may be easy for some of you simply to ignore Paul (that would be big mistake, as I’ll try to show later on), the point people like Robert Gagnon wish to make is that it is inappropriate to ignore the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face norm established at the very start of the central Biblical narrative, with the joining together of Adam and Eve. Which raises, quite unavoidably, the question of how we, in the church, deal with norms: the very question I hope to address after we’ve had a chance to stretch our legs, and sing a hymn.
“Come and Find The Quiet Centre”
“Part Two: Contexts, mainly the Church of saints and sinners”
When we read a text, we read it in context. We have, of course, already been doing that, this morning, as we seek to understand ancient texts in their ancient context. And yet, as our congregational meetings made abundantly clear, ancient texts and contexts provide only a part of the backdrop against which this faith community wishes to weigh the question of same-sex marriage. Without disparaging Scripture, without thumbing its noses at the traditions of the Church, the Knox faith-family has insisted that it needed to incorporate distinctly contemporary insights, if our decision was to be a faithful one. I am in strong agreement with that. And while there are countless relevant contexts that need to be heeded, there are three that stand out as especially important.
The first is the context of modern science as it pertains to what we know (at any rate, what we think we know) about sexuality in general, homosexuality in particular. At the risk of indulging in a grotesque generalization, I think it is the case that science–on the whole–is convinced that sexual orientation tends to be fixed at an extremely young age. And so, while scientists debate the extent to which this is the result of genetic hard-wiring versus childhood environment and circumstances, science is pretty clear that our sexual orientation is beyond our control, which comes as welcome news for those who want to found their advocacy for same-sex unions on the rock of science.
My caution here concerns the continually evolving face of scientific knowledge. At the end of the day, science is not so much a body of results, but rather a way of engaging the world through experimentation and inductive reasoning. Right now, the science of human sexual orientation points in one direction; what if new scientific data indicates that children who–by the age of 6–manifest clear symptoms of same-sex orientation, can be changed if subjected to a year of intensive psychological reprogramming? Is that a band wagon on which the church would want to leap? To take an even more current example–though one drawn not from the hard sciences but from the social sciences–what if social scientists like Stanley Kurtz turn out to be correct when they argue that the legitimization of same-sex marriage in places like Sweden is already harming the institution of heterosexual marriage?(4)
Will the church change it’s stance again, if that turns out to be true? My point is this; much as I appreciate science, we need to use its findings cautiously as we seek to hear God’s call.
For that reason, I am personally far more interested in a second context: the context of personal testimony that has been increasingly available over the past 40 years, as homosexual persons and those who love them have been able to come out of the closet. I take such testimonies very seriously: not because they are infallible (believe me, the testimony I am presently sharing with you is far from infallible), but because testimony (including Scripture’s testimony) must be heard as we seek the truth.
And I have been especially impressed these past months, by the testimony that some of you have been willing to share with me, including some of you whom I regard as elders: those from my parents’ generation or older. I have been deeply moved by the stories you have shared with me as people who came of age 20 years before I did, but whose own children are my contemporaries. And so I have heard the heartbreaking stories of friends who were married to men that they adored, only to discover (15 or more years into a marriage) that the person they had married had been living a lie, and was now going to depart in order to take up life with a male lover. And I have heard the truly tragic stories of the children who wandered away, never to be heard from again, until a late night phone call revealed the whereabouts of the remains of a son or daughter who was convinced that their families would never be able to accept them as the gay or lesbian person they knew themselves to be, and that they therefore had no choice but to make a new life away from their family. And yes, I have also heard the triumphant stories of those of you who have struggled valiantly to relearn some of the anti-gay, anti-lesbian scripts you memorized as children, in order to accept and embrace homosexual sons and daughters who remain a rich and rewarding part of your lives.
All of them stories very much in synch with what I have heard from homosexual people both inside and outside this congregation: people whose realization that they are somehow “different” rarely causes them an initial burst of joy, people who often go through a time of denial, a time of trying to pretend that they could change, people who eventually (and this can often take years) come to that place where they have accepted themselves for who they really are: not because their homosexuality is the only facet of their identity, but because their homosexuality is intricately woven into every other dimension of their identity. Unlike the findings of science which will inevitably give way to new findings, such testimonies are impossible to dismiss, even though any given one only reveals a small fragment of the truth. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence, to the effect that self-acceptance brings healing and life, self-rejection brings isolation and psychic death, to those who are wrestling with the realization that they are attracted to people of the same sex.(5)
But why act on that insight? Why can’t people of same-sex orientation simply find a place of succor and nurture within their families and spiritual communities? Having acknowledged a same-sex attraction, having been honest about who they are, having accepted who they are, why the need to actualize the attraction in the form of a covenanted relationship?
Of all the contexts that have factored into my thinking as I have wrestled with the question of same-sex attraction (not only over the past week, but over the past 25 years), the one to which I continually return is the context of the Church, the context of the community charged with the unique responsibility of tending the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Over the centuries, we have–of course–taken a number of different stands vis a vis gay and lesbian persons. At our least Christ like, we have simply condemned: condemned not only actions but the people who have engaged in those actions, condemnations which–at their most brutal–have hearkened back to an advocacy of the Leviticus 20:13 death penalty. More characteristically over the past 20 years, even conservative churches have moved to a middle position: warmly accepting homosexuals, without affirming their relationships. Only recently have some of the churches been willing not only to accept homosexuals, but to affirm their practice of homosexuality.
And it’s hard to deny the initial attractiveness of that middle stance.(6) The comparison sometimes made is with alcoholism: welcome the alcoholic but not the alcohol, or so goes the saying. Applying that to the present discourse, we would say that we want to welcome the homosexual, but not the homosexuality. Come to church but please leave your intimate relationships out of it! My difficulty with that sort of analogy, however, is that comparing the use of alcohol to an intimate, committed relationship, trivializes the latter. There is so much more to an intimate relationship, than the sexual pleasuring that takes place within it; in other words, there is far more than sex at stake, in the question of same-sex relationships.
Barbara Amiel, the Canadian writer, penned a beautiful column back in January.(7) In response to the wedding of Elton John and his long-time companion David Furnish, Amiel spoke of how she would have been honored to have attended the wedding, had she and her husband, Conrad Black, not been dealing with all kinds of other problems. Among the very important points she makes in that column, Amiel notes that “human beings are a pair-bonding species and I’m at a loss as to why any liberal society would want to deny the expression of pair-bonding instincts in homosexuals.” Her concern here is not with the sex act itself; she is talking about the way in which the vast majority of human beings yearn to “pair-bond”, yearn to find another person with whom to navigate life’s adventures, someone without whose presence we easily lose our bearings. (I hate to think what my life would be like without Sherry; for your part, you don’t even want to imagine what my life would be like without Sherry!) That sort of relationship is not a mere add-on like a glass of good port and an after dinner cigar; it’s basic to what makes us human. But, of course, as Christians don’t need Barbara Amiel to teach us that; Genesis 2, with its story of Adam and Eve teaches that quite nicely: teaches that Adam’s deep longing could not be met until God brought forth a fitting partner for him. And while it may well be true that Genesis 2 establishes a heterosexual norm for that central relationship, do we as the Church–as a church of saints and sinners–really want to deny that sort of relationship to the hardly insignificant minority who will only find such a relationship in a person of the same sex?
The longer I wrestle with that question, the more insistently I find myself ill at ease with the different standard we Protestants apply to homosexual relationships, as opposed to our way of dealing with the remarriage of those once married but now divorced. In the case of divorce and remarriage, we don’t have to dig into Leviticus to find texts condemning the practice: Jesus does not hesitate to compare that practice to legalized adultery. The late Lewis Smedes, who for many years taught ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in California (it’s a prestigious Evangelical seminary), Dr. Smedes in a powerful article dealing with same-sex marriage, recalled a time in the history of his own Christian Reformed denomination when their Synod re-affirmed its refusal to bless the second marriages of previously divorced individuals.(8) He then describes the way in which that changed, as more and more divorces took place, and as it became increasingly impossible to apply the divorce/remarriage rule-book without regard to the human pain that rule was causing for those who yearned for a second chance. Which prompts Lewis Smedes to ask a pretty basic question. “Does the church’s dramatic move from the exclusion to the embrace of divorced and remarried Christians provide a precedent for an embrace of homosexual Christians who live together in a committed partnership?” He answers that question in the affirmative, looking forward to the day when the Church will be prepared to bless same-sex marriages.
And I hasten to add that Dr. Smedes was writing here as someone who was far from convinced that homosexual orientation was God’s ultimate intention for anyone. I plan to question that assumption in a few minutes, but for now please recognize the importance of what Dr. Smedes was moved to affirm: namely that it is more than a little hypocritical to color outside the lines when it comes to the remarriage of divorced persons, but to offer nothing other than a life of celibacy to those countless gays and lesbians who manifestly do not possess the gift of celibacy. Indeed: as a rule of thumb, let me simply state that anytime you find yourself getting ready to recommend a life of celibacy to another person as the solution to their life problems, it’s time to take a deep breath and think long and hard before you open your mouth to speak.
In the words of the One we call Lord: “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens too hard to bear, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to help them,”(9) words that stand in powerful contrast to another set of words he was also heard to have spoken. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me: for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”(10) Let’s sing another hymn.
“Help us Accept Each Other”
Part Three: Contexts, mainly the Church of the Holy Spirit
Let me refresh your memories. I have been speaking about the church of saints and sinners. And I have asked a question of the church. Given that same-sex relationships are not the norm, given that they may even fall outside the bounds of the standard issue relationships God desires for us, why have we been so reluctant to offer the same blessing to such relationships that we have been willing to extend to the no-less questionable relationships of those who have entered into a second or third marriage? That’s the question with which I concluded the last section. Here, in this final section, I want to push the envelope further; I want to ask another question, namely this:
Are there grounds…are there grounds for wondering whether same-sex relationships may not be problematic at all? Are there grounds for believing that God–far from being displeased–is actually cheering on those churches that are opening their doors, not only to homosexuals, but to their relationships?
There are, of course, many ways of skinning this particular cat; some folks I know simply argue that God doesn’t make “junk”, and since God–at least in some sense–is responsible for the creation of gays and lesbians, the presumption is God affirms those who were simply “born that way.” Unfortunately, I find that a difficult route to travel. Why? Because I believe ours to be a fallen world: a world in which God permits all sorts of things to take place that can safely be said to break God’s heart. To assume, just because something “is”, that it “is” in precisely the way God wants it “to be”, is to assume too much. For me, that route is not available; something more is needed..
For an increasing number of folks, that “something more” is to be found in a small handful of Biblical texts that appear to affirm not only homosexual persons but their relationships, as well. It would take me too far a field, this morning, were I to address these four texts in a detailed way; but let me quickly summarize. From the Old Testament there is, on the one hand, the Book of Ruth with its powerful depiction of a friendship between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi and, on the other hand, the story of the passionate friendship between David and Jonathan, a friendship described in the book 1st Samuel. Of the two, I find the suggestion of intimacy between David and Jonathan by far the more plausible; there are at least a couple of points in the narrative where the text virtually screams at us to notice that these two young men are more than just friends. For those of you who are interested in following up on that possibility, I can recommend some further reading.(11)
As for the New Testament, here again two texts are frequently cited. The first comes from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 8: 5-13), that includes a version of the story of the healing of the Centurion’s servant in which the Greek words used hint at the possibility that the servant in question was more than a servant. Here again, however, none of that is spelled out by the text, nor is it ever made clear whether Jesus (who was otherwise silent on the question of homosexuality) was aware of the precise nature of the Centurion’s relationship with his servant. Once again, I can recommend some further reading, for those who want to dig more deeply.(12)
The other New Testament text that may have a homosexual reference is one we read in Church just a few weeks ago: the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch who, as you may recall, is quite possibly the first gentile to enter the Church. The relevance of this story is that there was a connection, in the ancient world, between Eunuchs and homosexuality, some scholars going so far as to suggest that some of those who served as eunuchs were actually gay men, men who posed no sexual threat to the women they served, not because they were castrated but because they were gay.(13) As with these other texts, it would be presumptuous to assume too much and yet, in the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch, I find it fascinating that the first Gentile to gain admission to the Church was not merely a gentile, not merely a black man, but someone about whom there would have been the unmistakable air of “sexual misfit”. Which prompts, yet again, that most basic of questions: What is the Church? What are we to say of this odd institution, this originally Jewish institution that managed to haul in–as its first non-Jewish conscript–someone whose genital deformity and/or status as a “sexual outsider” would have marked him as a decidedly questionable candidate for admission to the ranks of God’s people?
Well: as you realize, I have already referred to the Church as the Church of saints and sinners, a place where mercy is offered and received. Here, as I bring these remarks to a close, I want to remind us that the Church is also rightly regarded as the Church of the Holy Spirit, a place in which it is always appropriate to inquire as to the whereabouts and activities of the Holy Spirit. And the point that must be made is simply this: the Church by definition is fundamentally a Church neither of law nor of laws, but foundationally a Church of the Spirit. Surely that is what Jesus is saying to his disciples (John 16: 12-15) when he tells them, just prior to his death: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” Why do we so readily assume that the promise of the Spirit’s guidance was offered only to the first generation of Christians? Why do we so often presume that the Spirit has no new truths to unfold to us? In a similar vein, I wonder why we don’t take Jesus at his word (Matthew 16:19, 18:18,19) when he says to his first disciples: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Here again I need to ask: why do we so often assume that the power to loose and to bind was only given to the first generation of Christians? Why do we presume that the Spirit might not use our generation to set a new group of captives free?
And why, pray tell, do we seem so reluctant to claim the spiritual freedom that both Jesus and Paul sought to win for us? Here I must be honest: as a Christian who comes to the Church from a Jewish background, it breaks my heart to see us hurling texts from Leviticus at one another. In the seventh chapter of Mark, when Jesus dispenses with all food regulations–regulations that come directly from Leviticus–he makes it clear that the foundation of the Church is not the law. And Paul, in Galatians–when he does away with the need for circumcision–does precisely the same thing, making it clear that the foundation of the Church is not the law. And while I realize that food issues and circumcision issues may seem trivial to us, I can assure you that even now they do not seem trivial to observant Jewish ears. More to the point: it’s not that Jesus didn’t care about food (I’m sure he is deeply concerned to see a world in which obscene gluttony and dire hunger live side by side) but that his concerns over the proper use of food cannot be contained within the parameters of the Mosaic law. Which again leads to a question, namely this one. (And this is a biggie, so please listen up!!) Could it be that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the living Christ, is doing something in this generation around questions of human sexuality, not unlike what Jesus himself managed to do for his generation around questions of the proper use of food? Just as Jesus’ own generation was asked to learn that the way in which we share our daily bread is more important than the ingredients we use when we bake the bread, is it possible that our generation is being asked to learn that the quality of commitment (the quality of fidelity) we bring to our relationships, is far more important than surveying precisely which body parts are involved in the sexual dimension of those relationships? Is it possible that God’s Spirit is nudging us in that direction? And if so, how would we recognize the Spirit at work in so dramatic a shift?
Let me answer that final question ever so briefly. Over the past few months, as I have re-read a handful of the literature around the issue of same-sex marriage, I have been impressed by the testimony of a small handful of brave charismatic Christians. Some are gays and lesbians who–having been rejected by their own churches–have founded flourishing alternative Christian communities. Others are straight Christians, folks like Evelyn Schave and her husband Dennis, people who heard a call to minister to gays and lesbians.(14) Having answered that call on the assumption that their job was to convert them away from their homosexuality, they persistently heard the Spirit reminding them that all God was asking of them was that they bear witness, within gay and lesbian communities, to the unconditional love of God made known in Jesus Christ. I realize that I am something of an oddity: a United Church minister who has the time of day for that kind of testimony from the charismatic wing of the church. And while it is true that such testimonies must be used with considerable care, I refuse simply to ignore what the Spirit appears to be up to in some unlikely corners of the Church.
In addition, I have been struck these past weeks as we have worked through a number of texts from the Book of Acts, struck by the powerful parallels between the Spirit’s work of expanding the walls of the Church in the first century Mediterranean world, and the ways in which the walls of the Church appear to be expanding in this generation.(15) Once again, it appears that the exiles are being welcomed home; once again it appears that the outcasts–the once unacceptable ones–are being shown that there is a place for them at the banquet table. Can I be certain, can I be certain that the Spirit of God is not responsible for that kind of movement, for that kind of expansiveness?
Finally, at the end of the day, the other way in which we (meaning the Christian Church) will come to recognize whether or not this movement of inclusiveness is truly God’s work, is when at least a handful of congregations in each community step out in faith (notice, I finally got around to including the sermon title in the sermon!!) stepping out in faith in order to see whether we have in fact, heard the Spirit correctly, asking the Spirit to bless us as we seek to bless the unions of our gay and lesbians brothers and sisters in Christ. That this is a prospect that some of us find terrifying is not to be denied. And yet…and yet! When I look at the sorry record of exclusion of and hatred toward homosexual persons that has been the legacy of far too much of Christian history, this much I do know. I know that Jesus Christ is not happy with any of that. And I also know that if forgiveness is available to those who have permitted and even encouraged such actions in the name of Christ, forgiveness will also be available to those who step out in faith, reaching out in love and compassion to gay and lesbian people, even if we do that in ways that God does not, in fact, intend. And please, please: don’t hear any of that as my being wishy-washy! Let me be clear: while I will never presume to know the mind of God on this or any other issue with anything even vaguely resembling infallibility, let me unequivocally state that I am only too happy to participate in the life of a congregation that has decided to step out in faith in just this way, offering to the gay and lesbian community not exclusion, but embrace, including the unique embrace of a congregation that wishes to bless their committed relationships.(16) .
Two final “words”. First: a word to those of you who are deeply disappointed by the stance I have taken this morning. I urge you not to act hastily, but to take time to ponder and pray over the summer months, asking God to give you the clarity you need, as you seek to decide whether you are able to remain a part of the Knox family of faith. I believe that there is room for Christians to disagree on these issues, including room for those who disagree to remain a part of the Knox faith family. But that can only be a personal decision each of you will need to make. For that reason, I also have a word for those of you who are delighted with the conclusion Knox has arrived at in the matter of same-sex marriages, but who may be struggling to show patience to those Knoxonians who are not on board. For those of you in this camp, I place a photo of the Dalai Lama on the screen, the Noble Peace Prize recipient who is almost universally praised for his deep spirituality and compassionate ways. Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama is not hesitant about offering unqualified condemnations of same-sex relationships,(17) a stance which, I must confess, gave your humble servant considerable cause for sober second thoughts. But the reason I place his photo before you is to remind you that most of us who favor the blessing of same-sex marriages would have no trouble regarding the Dalai Lama with affection and respect, despite the fact that he disagrees with us on this issue; my prayer is that we will seek to extend the same sort of affection and respect to those within this congregation (and within the wider Christian faith family) who are unable, at least for the time being, to walk with us on this question.
…because, at the end of the day, none of us is going to get the answer to all of the questions just right, but all of us–not in the name of the Dalai Lama, but in the name of Jesus Christ–can surely seek to do justice, can surely seek to love kindness, can surely seek to walk humbly with one another, and with our God. And glory be to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God, from generation to generation, in the Church, and in Christ Jesus: now and forever more. Amen.(18)
At sermon’s end, the congregation was invited to sing
the John Oldham/Ron Klusmeier hymn:
“Deep in our Hearts”
1. See Robin Scroggs extensive treatment in The New Testament and Homosexuality, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).
2. James Alison, a British Catholic theologian, provides an insightful contextual reading of the first chapter of Romans in his essay, “A Catholic reading of Romans 1”. It can be found at his website, www:jamesalison.co.uk.
3. Gagnon, with greater thoroughness than any other contemporary scholar, has attempted to make the case not only against the Church sanctioning same-sex marriage, but against any Christian acceptance of homosexual practice. His full length treatment of the theme is found in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002). Readers who are interested in a more succinct statement of his views (The Bible and Homosexual Practice runs to over 500 pages!), might wish to have a look at Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, by Dan O. Via and Robert A.J. Gagnon (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). Another scholar who articulates a thoughtful argument against same-sex marriage (I personally find him far more convincing than Gagnon) is Richard B. Hays. The chapter to consult is “Homosexuality”, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), pp. 379-406.
4. Kurtz’s writings can be found in the National Review and at the website of the National Review Online (www.national review.com). Readers interested in a concise presentation of the arguments in support of same-sex marriage from the perspective of a strong, secular advocacy on behalf of the institution of marriage, are referred to Jonathan Rauch’s Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good For Gays, Good For Straights, and Good For America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), especially pages 86-103.
5. One of the countless relevant topics on which this sermon did not touch, was that of the ex-gay movement as well as the ex-ex-gay movement that has arisen in the wake of the ex-gay movement. My impression, as a non-specialist, is that those who successfully undergo a transition from a gay- to a straight-lifestyle, are individuals who tend to occupy a place at the “bi-sexual” portion of the sexual-orientation spectrum. In other words, I am convinced that those whose orientation is exclusively “homosexual”, are rarely able to change their orientation, without risking profound damage to the core of their being.
6. What I am describing as the middle-stance is explored with great clarity and compassion by Stanley Grenz, Welcoming But Not Affirming, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
7. Amiel’s article, “Wish I’d Been There”, can be found at the MacLeans website: www.macleans.ca
8. Lewis B. Smedes, “Like the Wideness of the Sea?”, can be found at www.soulforce.org.
9. Luke 11:46
10. Matthew 11: 28-30
11. A good, introductory “popular” treatment of these texts can be found in the second chapter (“Finding Affirmation in Scripture”) in, Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships, (Indianapolis: Jesus Metropolitan Community Church, 2002), pp. 27-56. The chapter includes references to some of the scholarly literature on these two passages. Speaking personally, I have yet to be convinced that the homoerotic elements some readers claim to find in the Ruth/Naomi story are not, in fact, being read into the story, rather than genuinely discovered within the book of Ruth, a book that takes as its focus not the fact that Ruth was a woman, but that she was a member of the hated Moabite tribe. As for the David and Jonathan story, it most certainly does contain powerful hints of many of the same homoerotic elements one finds in heroic Greek literature such as Homer’s The Iliad, in which the love between Patrocles and Achilles is one of the key forces that shape the entire narrative. I struggle to interpret the significance of the David and Jonathan story, given the part it plays in a larger narrative cycle (the story of David’s rise to power against the backdrop of Saul’s kingship) that is exceptionally subtle and complex; given the extent to which David, in the end, humiliates the entire family of King Saul, I believe it is a mistake to read too much into the narrator’s failure either to explicitly commend or explicitly condemn David’s relationship with Jonathan.
12. For this text as well as for the Acts account of the Ethiopian Eunuch, Miner and Connoley (see note 11 above) provide a good starting place. Needless to say, it would be extraordinarily helpful were we able to be certain that the hints provided by Matthew’s version of this story as to the “real” relationship between the Centurion and his servant do in fact point in the direction of a same-sex relationship; it would be even more helpful if the text then went on to make it unambiguously clear that Jesus was aware that he was confronted by such a relationship when the Centurion approached him on behalf of his servant. That having been said, it might be worth pondering the fact that Jesus–in this instance as in so many other instances–offers the blessing of healing with no apparent hesitation and with no apparent need first to interrogate the Centurion; perhaps Christ’s Church can do a whole lot worse than to follow His practice in this regard.
13. Miner and Connoley, p. 40ff.
14. Evelyn and Dennis Schave’s story is found on pages 140-144 in E.T. Sundby’s Calling the Rainbow Nation Home: A Story of Acceptance and Affirmation, (New York: iUniverse, 2005). The bulk of this book consists of Elaine Sundby’s own testimony as a charismatic Christian who spent many years struggling to reconcile her faith and her homosexuality; it is well worth reading.
15. The texts to which I am referring are mainly drawn from Acts chapters 10-15.
16. “Faith is, as Kierkegaard put it, a passionate commitment made in objective uncertainty. In the Christian case, it is commitment to the person of Christ as disclosing the highest form of goodness we know, and as mediating the power to transform lives–to share to some degree in that goodness. It is saving faith, a personal commitment of trust that liberates from sin, and freely gives a share in divine love.” Keith Ward , “True Protestants allow diversity”. The article can be found at www.churchtimes.co.uk .
17. For example, in an April 2004 interview with Vancouver Sun reporter Douglas Todd. The interview can be found at www.phayul.com .
18. Other books that were consulted during the preparation of this sermon include Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, (New Mexico: Alamo Square Press, 2000), Gray Temple, Gay Unions: In the Light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, (New York: Church Publishing, 2004), J. Neil Alexander, This Far By Grace: A Bishop’s Journey Through Questions About Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass. Cowley Publications, 2003), and Walter Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999). I find Wink’s approach to scriptural issues especially helpful, with his insistence that this issue cannot be resolved solely on the basis of exegetical findings, but requires as well, thoughtful engagement with hermeneutical issues. Interested readers are also referred to a number of good websites including those that reflect the perspective of gay and lesbian Christians of a “conservative” theological bent. These include “Courage” at www.courage.org.uk , “Evangelicals Concerned” at www.ecwr.org and GayChurch at www.gaychurch.org all of which include links to a variety of other websites of interest.