Sunday, 28 January 2018

Epiphany 4- LGBTQ+

We are continuing with our sermon series on questions submitted by members of our congregation. Today the question is, 
“Are the LGBTQ community welcome to the church/God’s kingdom?”
 And just before we begin, please know that you can disagree with me. I go back to what Bishop NT Wright said at a public lecture. He said something like, 
“25% of what I say is wrong, but I’m not sure which bits those are”.
 So I’m going to try to deal with this topic as best I can, and I’m just going to have to ask for your grace if you don't agree with what I say. I'm going to try to give you a sense of what the discussion is like in the Anglican church at the moment. This is an incredibly volatile and sensitive topic, and to deal with it in only 20 minutes is tricky.

It is tricky because Scripture and the tradition of the church matter to us. We want to teach what is true according to what God thinks- as best we can come to know that. We want to have integrity as Christians and not follow whatever wind happens to be blowing through our society. We also believe that the call to discipleship means picking up our cross and denying ourselves.

This is also an incredibly tricky topic because we are talking about people we love. We are talking about “us”, not “them”. They are our family members. They are our friends. They are members of our churches. They are people we work with. I even have friends who are in a polyamorous marriage (which is three people all being married together). … I know people I love very much who find themselves in the LGTBQ+ categories. … It’s not just a theoretical question. Regardless of what we say, we are talking about people we love, and we don’t want to cause them difficulty or pain.

The question again is, 
“Are the LGBTQ community welcome to the church/God’s kingdom?”
 The quick answer to this is that everyone who walks through those doors and wants to follow Jesus is welcome to be a part of the church. … Being in God’s kingdom is only for God to judge. That is a matter of integrating your character with the will of God under the guidance and grace of Jesus, and really only God can say how much that integration has taken place for any of us. … But, regarding the church, all are welcome here. And I would, frankly, be horrified and surprised if someone was treated with anything but love if they came through the doors.

(I should say we aren’t going to have time to deal with transgenderism, in terms of Scripture. In that regard we will be looking at homosexuality exclusively.)

First, we want to look at this question through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was known for his welcome to those rejected by society. … This doesn’t mean he was “soft on sin”. When we read the Sermon on the Mount we even find that he sometimes made laws harder. Jesus’ love can warn the prideful Pharisee, but it can also speak tender acceptance to the depressed sinner. Looking at this question through the person of Jesus, it has to ultimately be about our love for people. However, we also have to recognize that love looks differently depending on the circumstances.

I’m mainly going to look at our readings from Leviticus and Romans, which tend to be used a lot in these discussions.

Our Leviticus reading contains laws spoken to the people living in the Promised Land about how to be God’s people. We heard a whole list of sexual relationships that are forbidden. Mainly, these have to do with sexual relationships with relatives. We are also told not to offer our children as a burned offering, and then it also says,
 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” (Lev 18:22).
 It then talks about not laying with an animal. … No real reasons are given here for following these rules, so scholars have to make certain assumptions about what those reasons are.

The trick with this passage in Leviticus is we still want most of this to apply. We don’t want to drop the prohibition against incest or bestiality, regardless of how consensual the parties involved are.

The command against male homosexual acts also follows a command against sacrificing children to Molech. This has led some to wonder if the homosexual activity is related to some sort of Canaanite practice. The people of God were told not to imitate the religious practices of the peoples that surrounded them (Leviticus 18:3). God’s people were to be set apart. It has also been suggested that, in Canaanite practice, homosexual actions were between socially unequal people and were probably not all that consensual. If this is the case, then we have to question if modern-day life-long homosexual relationships are equivalent to what is being described in Leviticus.

On the other hand, if these acts are in the category with the other forbidden sexual acts listed in Leviticus, then that prohibition would carry over to our own day as a part of the moral code of God’s people, just as we want to maintain the prohibition against incest. … Some have suggested that the prohibition against male homosexual activity has to do the fact that it falls outside the framework of producing offspring (which isn’t to say all acts, or even all couples, will produce children, rather it is about the framework for producing children). Since it was the assumption that people would produce children to fill the Promised Land, then sexual activity that can’t fill the land with offspring is counter-productive to Israel’s calling at that time. The people of Israel took family incredibly seriously. Having children was an incredibly important thing, to the extent that those who were unable to have children were considered to be enduring a terrible hardship. Homosexual behavior may have been seen as being contrary to this central ordering of social life.

Our Romans reading is a letter where Paul is introducing himself to the church in Rome, and also instructing them in Christian belief and practice. The first few chapters are about Paul saying both Jews and Gentiles are in similar circumstances. Gentiles sin by acting against the created order, primarily by not worshiping the Creator and worshiping creatures- idols. Paul seems to see homosexual behavior as a consequence of a society turned to idolatry. …. On the other hand, the Jewish people aren’t any better off. They may have been given the Torah, but they aren’t able to follow it perfectly. Paul says that whether one is Jewish or gentile, both are accepted on the basis of faith.

In the letter to the Romans, we are now dealing with the church age, rather than the age when God’s people were occupying the Promised Land, so this passage has a lot more ability to speak to our own part of the story. That makes this passage the hardest to deal with for those who want to be for same sex marriage. It’s important to say that Paul’s main topic isn’t homosexuality, rather he is speaking about it as a consequence of a society’s turning away from from the Creator to worship creatures. He sees it as a disordering of creation. Interestingly, here again we see homosexual behavior being related to idolatry.

Paul probably uses the example of homosexual behavior because Jewish sensibilities were particularly offended by these Greek and Roman sexual practices. It would be an obvious example of sin to his Jewish readers. Scholars argue about what homosexual behavior looked like in the ancient Mediterranean world. Some say it mostly involved an unequal relationship- slave and master, or child and older man- and by modern standards are abusive by nature. (Some scholars think this passage refers to the court of Caligula in particular). Something like a socially-equal life-long relationship between men, seemed to be more rare. … Though it would probably have been more equal between women, which leads other scholars to think the presence of women in the Romans passage means these aren’t necessarily abusive relationships. This is a point scholars argue about.[1] 

In general, when we look at the Bible as a whole, homosexual behavior is not seen in a positive light, but we still have to ask if we can really relate a modern same-sex life-long relationship between social equals to an ancient practice of homosexuality which may have had connections to pagan worship and which may have been between social non-equals. That is an important question for many in the church. Are we comparing apples to apples, or apples to oranges?

Tradition is the historical experiences of God's people as they try to live out their lives. The tradition of the church has taught that sex is to be confined to heterosexual marriage. … 

It is also the tradition of the church that we sometimes feel led into new territory by the Spirit. We shouldn’t just recreate the past. We have to live the truths of the Gospel in our own time. For example, the church declared that gentiles did not have to be circumcised to join the church, but Scripture seemed clear that joining the covenant of Abraham meant taking Abraham’s mark. … Or, consider slavery. While scripture never says slavery is good, it assumes that slavery is a part of society, … but at the same time it points towards a time when the practice of slavery will be dissolved. … Women taking leadership roles in the church has been controversial in the past, but again, Scripture seems to hold women up in a way the surrounding cultures didn’t, which points to egalitarianism for women. As we read in Galatians, 
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26, 28).
 … Some have asked if homosexuality is on such a developmental trajectory.

The way we have dealt with divorce might be considered similarly (Mark 10:1-12). Jesus speaks strongly against divorce, as it was practiced in his day. In Jesus’ day a divorced woman was very vulnerable, and Jesus’ denial of the practice of divorce may have been for the protection of women. The church recognized that while life-long marriage is the ideal, the world is messy and a woman should not be forced to remain with a man who beats her, for example. Though the letter of Scripture seems to teach against divorce, the church made the decision that in some cases divorce should be permitted. Grace was given to deal with the non-ideal.

Some have suggested that we should think about same sex life-long relationships in a similar way (See Terry Donaldson's article below). While not the Christian norm, or ideal, grace should be shown by making space for such relationships in the church, just as we do for divorce and remarriage. … 
 Still others say that the sexual norms of an ancient culture shouldn’t necessarily apply to our modern culture and we should be free to ignore passages like those above. 
Of course there are still others who do not want to show any support of homosexual actions while still wanting to affirm those who are attracted to people of the same sex.

I want to give the final word to two friends of mine. Both are clergy. Both are men who are attracted to men. They have the same orientation, but how they choose to react to that inner reality is different. One has chosen to live as a single celibate man. The other is single but believes in affirming same-sex relationships. These are voices that are incredibly important to listen to because this is a reality they are living every day as they seek to follow Christ. I have promised to keep them both anonymous.

The following is from my friend who believes in affirming same-sex relationships. This is what he said when I asked him what he would like to say to the church-

“When you live in a world that sees you as a deviant, so outside the norm, that you are told your identity is immoral, it is hard to love yourself, respect yourself, or simply have hope. It is even harder when you go to a Catholic school. Growing up, I knew that I was gay, before I knew what “gay” meant. I was too thin, too soft, too wispy, too girly. All labels others used to describe me ... and of course, with a hiss, called “gay”, “fag” by others. I had not even kissed another male or even particularly thought of doing so. My identity as outcast was given to me. My day was not about dreaming of a happily ever after with the person that I love. It was about surviving the next day, and the next. Growing up for me being gay meant different and bad. That is a common narrative.”

“I have been a person of faith my whole life... a faith that could not be rooted in myself, for how I was could not be saved. I was a walking sin. As I went to mass I had a faith that was rooted in greater hope beyond my daily struggle and survival. At some point this faith had to interact and react with my given identity as a gay person. I either had to live in the hopeless state that bullies called me into, or in the hope-filled state of my baptism. […] I rested my life on the incarnate Word, Jesus, and the Creator that formed me, the Savior that ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. I choose to be gay and love Jesus Christ- The incarnate Word that wraps his love and life around me...all of me. Through love...I came to believe it is okay to be a creature of God, made in the image of a loving God that loves me deeply and painfully. What being gay means to me is I am forced to be awake to this love and to embrace the unique creative person that I am. I am free. Being gay and a follower of Jesus means a freedom to see the beauty of the disenfranchised, the discarded, the disappeared. I have chosen to love because, in my baptism, I am called into the ministry of Jesus. To offer hope to the widow and orphan.”

This is what my friend who is committed to celibacy said when I asked him what he would like to say to the church-

“It is hard to sum up my experience as being a Christian and gay in a short statement. Maybe a good description would be feeling out of place and defensive. I have always felt out of place among my Christian brothers and sisters. As I got older, I realized that the normal life experiences that almost everyone gets to have are not a possibility with me. As I’ve told more and more people my orientation, I’ve also had to defend my status as a Christian. I had to somehow prove to the individual that I am an orthodox Christian who holds to Scripture. Even now as a pastor, as soon as someone learns about my attraction to the same sex, I have to prove that I can still be a pastor. Thus, among Christians I have felt out of place and defensive of my status as a Christian. Most Christians do not have to prove their Christianity to others, but I have always had to prove it. This double standard is difficult.” 

“I have also felt out of place among lgbtq+ affirming people. I hold to a traditional sexual ethic because of my Christian convictions, as a result I am committed to singleness. I feel loved and accepted among lgbtq+ affirming individuals, but also pitied because I am a single person. There’s a lack of understanding why I would even hold to such an archaic sexual ethic. Because I am not searching for a husband, some have questioned my mental and emotional stability. In these scenarios I have to defend myself as well, and it gets exhausting.” 

“It is important for the church to realize that there is shame and rejection with being gay, and when that is combined with the possible shame and rejection of being a Christian, life becomes very difficult. The best thing as a church to help someone who is lgbtq+ is not necessarily holding to the correct theology or agree with movements within society, but it is showing community and love. Community and love are so rare for someone who is used to shame and rejection.”

Here are some other places to look if you want to explore this topic more:

see Justin Lee's Torn
Lee is a gay, committed Christian, and affirms same sex marriage.

Wesley Hill's, Washed and Waiting 
Hill is a gay Christian who promotes a celibate life.

Seeking to be Faithful in the Uneasy Middle by Terence L. Donaldson

[1] Regarding homosexuality in the ancient world and how it related to modern day homosexuality. Especially, the question "was it always exploitative"?   

Some suggest that there was something like marriage for same sex couples in the Greco-Roman world. 
Clement refers to women marrying women (Paidagogos 
Louis Crompton, a homosexual scholar, in his book Homosexuality and Civilization seems to indicate, from his point of view as a historian, that there were were homosexual relationships that are comparable to modern-day homosexual relationships.  
Bernadette Brooten is a lesbian New Testament scholar who wrote Love Between Women and is convinced that Paul would be against all forms of homosexual behavior, even modern non-exploitative expressions.

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