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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, February 12, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to my wife Susan whose love has always sustained me, to Dr. Chalmers Coe who has loved this congregation for more than 46 years, to all men and women of faith who have never heard an affirming word from the pulpits of the Christian Church and always to the glory of God!
Homosexuality and the Bible: The Last Prejudice

Part V of VI in the sermon series: "We Believe: God in American Life"

Genesis 19:1-9; Acts 10:34-43, Luke 10:29-37

The last prejudice in this nation and in Christian faith is against homosexuals. Across the nation and faith, there are huge pockets of prejudice in which it is acceptable or encouraged to scorn, condemn and judge persons who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered (or GLBT). GLBT persons are ridiculed, mocked, beaten, judged, jailed, and even murdered because they have a sexual orientation - or they are judged to have a sexual orientation - other than straight or heterosexual. Let it be known to ALL who hear this or read this, The First Congregational Church, UCC, Columbus, Ohio is a safe place for you or your loved ones, if you or they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. We are an island of sanity in a sea of prejudice. But, we are not the only island. If our community of faith is not what you need, I promise you, with everything that is in me, I will help you find a spiritual home.

Today I begin to end this six-part sermon series, "We Believe: God in American Life." Today's sermon,"Homosexuality and the Bible: The Last Prejudice," is drawn from many years of study, preaching, and writing. Next week, I conclude with "Homosexuality and the Church: A Way Forward." In a few minutes, I will focus on "What the Bible says about homosexuality." First, allow me to share a small part of my journey with you and what I have learned.

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.

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For the last 14 of my 48 years I have walked a journey of acceptance and love for persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. As a heterosexual Christian and a pastor, this has often been eye-opening experience. It has always been an adventure. I have been converted from a Liberal Christian Homophobe (that is "one who proclaims he is an accepting Christian but inwardly is scared of homosexuality and persons who are GLBT") to an open and affirming man and pastor. My trek has taken a rather rambling route. But, on this path I have met Jews and Christians, agnostics and atheists of all ages and races who have shared their stories with me and opened my eyes by so doing. I have witnessed depression, despair and death as well as renewed hope, revival and resurrection.

I have walked the final hours with men dying of AIDS who have been cast out of the church because they were gay. As they died beside me, they found peace in feeling they were indeed "reconciled to their Savior." Lesbians have told me their stories of rejection and alienation from "Christian" parents and family members who looked them in the eye and spoke to them as though they were dead. Bisexuals have told me of their faithful struggles to live and love one partner, even while feeling attracted to people of both genders. Persons who are transgendered and transsexual have told me of their struggles to become alive to the person they always knew they were.

Many times I have not understood the fullness of what I have heard. Any number of times, the only connection I have felt with the person in front of me was our common humanity and often our common baptism in Christ. And that was truly enough. Even more so, God's grace was always sufficient. By the end of each encounter, I realized we had much more in common than different. Through most of this journey, I have not felt worthy to be graced by the immensity of love and the integrity of faith I have witnessed in these stories of pain, suffering and loneliness. Through it all, God has humbled me with countless opportunities to listen and learn. I have learned a lot.

I have learned that in our sanctuary today and every week, there are many people with a variety of expressions of sexual orientation. I have learned to acknowledge and celebrate the variety. Just as there are hues and colors of race, beautiful mixtures of ethnicity and a vast range of multi-cultural backgrounds at First Church, so too are there varieties of sexual orientations. We should not be afraid. We need never be prejudice. Every person here must commitment himself or herself to overcome and outlive the statement: "We are `they' to `them' and `they' are `them' to us."

I've learned that the word "homosexual" was the creation of a 19th Century German psychologist who labeled homosexuality a disease. Trying to prove the pathological nature of homosexuality, science spent more than 100 years of research and come up empty. In 1973, (now 33 years ago) even while facing extreme protest from the Religious Right, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, declaring that it is not "in itself a psychiatric disorder." For the past 30 years, geneticists have been unraveling DNA that shows some people are simply born gay. Like so many questions of nature and nurture, all the evidence isn't in on how one becomes gay or lesbian. The complexities of environment and biology work together as they do in anyone's life. Many of you have heard me quote Dr. Johnson of Masters and Johnson, who when asked why and how someone becomes homosexual responded, "I don't understand how someone becomes heterosexual and I have been studying that all my life. How do you expect me to explain how someone becomes homosexual?"

I've learned that "homosexuality" is an orientation not a lifestyle or a choice. There are a number of persons who have homosexual feelings, but do not act on their feelings. In their classic Sexual Preference, researchers Alfred Bell, Martin Weinberg and Kiefer Hammersmith of Indian University's Alfred Kinsey Institute for Sex Research repeatedly underscored one main point: "Homosexual feelings appear to play a more important role than do homosexual behaviors in the development of sexual orientation" (Sexual Preference, p. 188). Preference precedes behavior.

Often people will quote testimonies of "ex-gay" ministries when speaking to me of people "converted" from their homosexual orientation. Yet, in anonymous interviews, the founders and leaders of ex-gay ministries (persons who publicly claim to be "cured" of their homosexuality) have most often been truthful in admitting their feelings or orientation has not disappeared. Rather, they have sublimated their desires to act on their feelings. In reality these supposed, "ex-gays" are really "celibate gays" who are choosing to serve God in this way. I have honored and embraced persons when they have chosen this path while acknowledging the reality of their true feelings, just as I have honored and celebrated people who have come out and made the painfully difficult decision to be honest and open about their sexual orientation.

Through all of this growth, the one thing I have heard consistently is: "The Bible says homosexuality is a sin and I can't go against the Bible." I wish to address those who have retreated into the Alamo of their prejudice by declaring, "The Bible says homosexuality is a sin and I can't go against the Bible."

So what does the Bible say about the Last Prejudice of Against Homosexuals? This may surprise many of you, but the Bible doesn't have much to say about homosexuality. It appears the Bible really isn't very interested in the topic. In the original texts of Hebrew, Greek, Syrian, and Aramaic "homosexuality" is NEVER used. The word doesn't even appear in the Bible until 1946 in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Depending on your Bible of choice (and many conservative Christians pick the New King James Version BECAUSE "homosexuality" appears there), you may not see the word and its cognates. There are seven primary passages of scripture - four in the Jewish scriptures (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and Dt. 23:17-18) and three in Christian scriptures (Romans 1:18-32, I Corinthians 6:1-8, and I Timothy 1:9-10) which are most often rolled out in arguments against homosexuality. These texts speak against same sex acts in very negative ways. Each is related to adultery, promiscuity, violence, and idolatrous worship.

Before studying these more closely, I need to add that these seven passages could easily fit onto one page out of 1100 pages of the Bible - thus making up less than 1/10th of 1% of the holy scripture God has given us. Do you know what the first and second most written about topics in the Bible are: #1 is how we care for the poor and #2 is how we are stewards of our resources and of the earth given to our care! Poverty, Stewardship, and Care for the Earth. If these compassionate concerns are good enough for God to spend hundreds of passages addressing don't you think the church needs to put its energy here as well? Anyway, here we go . . .

Genesis 19:1-9 - the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18:16-33, God sends two angels to the city of Sodom to find ten righteous people so that God might spare the city from utter destruction. When the angels arrive, Abraham's brother, Lot befriends them and brings them to his home. Later that night, Lot's house is surrounded by all the men of Sodom, old and young, who demand that Lot bring the visitors out so that they "might know them." Lot pleads with the crowd on behalf of the angels and then offers them his two virgin daughters, suggesting that the crowd would do with his daughters what they please. This is a strange passage to say the least. Without actually studying the passage, a large number of Christians assume that the sin of Sodom (for which the city is later wiped out) is homosexuality. This assumption is based completely on the belief that "to know" is a euphemism for "Sexual intercourse." Although "to know" does refer to sexual intercourse in ten other Biblical passages, in an additional 933 passages "to know" has no sexual connotation whatsoever. Evidence here suggests that it means "knowledge" or "acquaintance," not sexual abuse or homosexual rape. If this is so, then "the sin of Sodom" is not male to male intercourse but Inhospitality.

Pay attention now, because the Old Testament prophets, Jesus our Savior, and Peter and Jude agree with me - not with Rod Parsley, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson - that Sodom's sin is not homosexual rape. Isaiah 1:10, 3:9, Jeremiah 23:14 and Ezekiel 16:49 all say God was angry at Sodom because the people were proud and prosperous and they refused to aid the poor and needy. Whether you like it or not, God had decided to wipe out Sodom long before the city's men showed up at Lot's house. In the New Testament, Peter and Jude mention Sodom - but in general reference to what happens when people live un-Godly lives. Paul never refers to Sodom in any of his 13 letters. In Matthew 10:15, Jesus says that if a town refuses the disciples hospitality, they should shake off the dust and move on. The story of Sodom is really about wickedness, greed, and self-centered people who refuse to aid the poor and care for the strangers in their gates. God was angry because people behaved badly not because they were gay. Is it any wonder? Nevertheless, to this day, we still refer to our civil laws as "sodomy laws" and certain acts as Sodomizing, even though these laws have nothing to do with hospitality. We continue to misuse the word and create more prejudice as a result.

In the three laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy homogenitality is condemned. But, it is crucial to note that the real concern for Jewish law was about impurity and wasting the seed of life and stood in direct reaction to pagan and Canaanite practices. We cannot make a mistake in reading these texts however. The laws exact a punishment of offenders and in Leviticus 20 such condemned to death.

I have two questions related to this: First, if we follow these laws and put people to death for homogenital acts, will we also follow stone children for disobedience, call for husbands and wives to abstain from sex except during fertile periods, and even the harvest at the edge of the field for the poor? The 613 Levitical and Deuteronomic laws make no distinction between Moral Laws and Ceremonial Laws. How then, would we choose to enforce one law over another? Second, didn't Jesus say he had come, not to destroy the law, but to fulfill the law? Did not Jesus' fulfillment of the law focus on two laws: "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself?" How then, does any Christian have an ounce of integrity focusing on Jewish laws against homogenitality when Jesus has clarified this question?

Speaking of Jesus, let's look at the New Testament . . . Jesus said absolutely nothing about same sex relations. Nada. Nichts. Zero. While he addresses stewardship, poverty, care for the poor, living right in relationship to neighbors any number of times, he never breathes a mumbling word about same sex relations. Why is he silent? Well, either same sex issues were not an issue for Jesus or he simply chose not to "go there" or both.

Our beloved Apostle Paul was not silent. While he didn't mention Sodom (which actually confirms my hospitality theory), he did talk about male to male sex. In his landmark book in 1983, The New Testament and Homosexuality, Union Seminary New Testament Professor, Robin Scroggs offers the position that Paul was speaking, not against male to male sex per see, but against Pederasty -which literally means -men having sex with boys or young teens. Pederasty was an open and common practice in many Hellenistic cities in Paul's time. This was a form of abuse and rape, not mutual love. I would hope all of us would join Paul in opposing such abusive use of power and sex. Scroggs writes: "What the New Testament was against was the image of homosexuality as pederasty and primarily here in its more sordid and dehumanizing dimensions" (Scroggs, p. 127).

Peter J. Gomes adds in The Good Book, "Paul is not writing about homosexuality in Romans . . . He is writing about the fallen nature of humankind" (Gomes, p. 155). Paul is concerned that passions are emotions out of control. Dishonorable passions disorder God's purpose. The shameful acts that Paul brings into focus involve lust, avarice, exploitation, power and abuse. These are evil qualities in the human condition, not qualities to be associated only with homosexual persons. I hope and pray that when you consider loving relationships - whatever the orientation of your relationships may be - you always do so with a heart of love, gentleness and mutuality. With any other heart, you will find yourself condemned by Paul, and ultimately God. While I have not fully addressed Paul's writings, I hope I have opened a door to new understanding in our greatest apostle's writings.

I like what Scroggs says in conclusion to his book 23 years ago: "Biblical judgments against homosexuality, are not relevant for today's debate. They can no longer can used in denominational discussions about homosexuality, and should in no way be a weapon to justify refusal of ordination, not because the Bible is not authoritative, but simply because it does not address the issues involved (Scroggs, p. 127). That powerful conclusion was reached ten years ago by conservative theologian John Stott in an article in Christianity Today. Stott told readers to stop using biblical texts to prop up their arguments against persons who were homosexual. The case cannot be made, Stott said! (Quoted in a lecture by Virginia Ramey Mollencott, 3/4/95). William Sloan Coffin put it this way, " The problem is not how to reconcile homosexuality with scriptural passages that appear to condemn it, but rather how to reconcile the rejection and punishment of homosexuals with the love of Jesus Christ! I do not think it can be done."

I have taken much time today to reach this point. I thank you for your patience in listening. Next week, I conclude with a look at the church through the ages and our response to homosexuality. I will humbly propose a way through the madness. I hope it helps. Before I close allow me share one final reflection . . .

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus answers the question,"Who is my neighbor?" by telling the story of a Samaritan's compassion for wounded traveler. I am sure many people were offended when Jesus chose the Samaritan as his model for loving behavior. Taught to despise and fear their neighbors in Samaria, Jesus' Jewish audience must have found it hard to swallow "good" and "Samaritan" in the same story. John 4:9, tells us that Samaritans were people with whom one should not associate. In Luke 9:54, Samaritans were those whom the fire of heaven was justifiably called down upon. Didn't Jesus know this? What was he thinking? Why didn't he give his people a positive role model from within their own Jewish faith? All too many people treat gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons like the Jews in Jesus' crowd treated the Samaritans. Yet, like the Samaritan, I have seen sons and daughters kneel in compassion and love beside the sickbeds and deathbeds of parents who have rejected them. I have seen gay Christians offer themselves in love to co-workers, family members, and fellow Christians who have shunned them, and spoken hate and disdain for them. I have witnessed GLBT Christians love unconditionally those who have hated them with homophobic hearts, minds, and words. I have felt such unconditional love from those I had abandoned and forsaken years and years ago. I stand here today, like the man saved from death by the Samaritan so many years ago, to tell you the time has come to welcome the Samaritans home. They are good. They are our neighbors. They are our brothers, our sisters, perhaps our parents or our friends. They should no longer be treated like lepers. They need not be quarantined. They have no disease. In the words of passionate love spoken by God to God's people in Solomon's song proclaims: "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death." Amen.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church