A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Lent 3, March 18, 2001, dedicated to the rainbow promise embracing all God's children and always to the glory of God!
Part 4 of 7 in the Lenten/Easter Series
"Diversity in Christ: Weaving the Tapestry of God's Love"
Mark 5:25-24; Ezekiel 37:1-14
Before beginning this sermon, I want you to know, that I deeply understand and appreciate that this topic and this sermon may be uncomfortable to any number of you here. I also know others present who have been wondering what took me so long to get this sermon! I assure everyone - I don't broach this subject lightly. Although I have made mention of persons who are gay and lesbian in the 14 months I have served as your pastor, I have not preached a sermon on the subject. If you are uncomfortable at the outset, I only ask that you stay and listen and see what you can learn and take home from this sermon. (Experience tells me that some may not be present today because they could not handle listening to this. I hope those of you who have come share with them what you learn today - in a positive way).
After the service, beginning at 12:15 or so, I will field questions and comments in the Parlor about what I have said. At that point I will listen to you. I expect for you to come and talk if you have something to share - or to speak with me directly in the coming weeks in whatever form you find helpful. If you are struggling with questions around sexual orientation, you are not alone. Your brothers and sisters who have different orientation than you have struggled as well! If this was easy, we would have figured out how to respond well years ago!
Please listen using the five threads of discernment I shared two weeks ago - 1. bear with one another in love, 2. confess the arrogance of your certitude, 3. find common ground by seeing every person as a beloved child of a Loving God, 4. break the code of silence and secrecy, and 5. identify with the pain of exclusion that others feel when left out, cast out, and shut of the church. Let us pray . . .
May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
He was a young leader in the church and was elected to serve on the Board of Deacons because he had been told - "you are spiritual model for men in this congregation." As such a model he served for years, until it was discovered that he was gay. Then he was shunned and thrown out of the church - admonished by the same Deacons he had served among and was told - "You are a terrible sinner, don't bother coming back."
She was gifted for Christian Ministry. Among the top students in her seminary class, she was approaching ordination in the United Church of Christ. In her last year of seminary, she visited a small United Church of Christ congregation in central Ohio and preached for them. They loved her sermon and her leadership of worship. After the service they offered her the job of "Student Minister," but before she could sign the covenant agreement a few days later, they discovered she was a Christian who was lesbian, so they tore up the agreement and in the sweetness of "Christian love" told her not to come back.
They had come to me following a visit to my church. They were a gay couple who had been together for four years. I answered their questions about the congregation and our denomination. I listened to each of them tell of rejection, judgement, and pain as it related to past churches and pastors. As our time ended, we held hands and prayed together. As they left, we embraced and one of the men began to cry, "I kept waiting for you to tell me I was hated by God, but you never did. All I feel is the love of God - for the first time in my life of faith."
For nine years I have been walking a journey of acceptance and love for persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. As a heterosexual man, this has been an eye-opening experience. I have grown from what I call, a liberal Christian homophobe (that is one who proclaims he is an accepting Christian but is inwardly scared of homosexuality) to an open and affirming pastor. It has been a circuitous journey at best, but one that has brought me in contact with some amazingly hopeful as well as some amazingly troubled and hurting people. Jewish, Christian, agnostic, atheistic, all ages and races, I have heard stories and dealt with situations that I never really knew existed in the years preceding 1992.
Today, I wish to speak to those and for those among the multitudes of persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. Many of them have been baptized into Christ Jesus. Many have been named and claimed by Christ in the waters and in the Spirit of Baptismal grace. As we seek "Diversity in Christ," we are called by God to welcome and accept our brothers and sisters in Christ who happen to have a different sexual orientation than our own. Too often the church's pastors and people have sought to play God and negate the baptismal grace given by God in baptism. And in the name of Jesus and the Bible, persons who have faced such rejection have been religiously abused and neglected. This has to stop! In the name of Jesus Christ, I say to you, we have to stop this madness. But, how?
Please allow me to answer "How?" by attempting to answer three questions:
1) Who are persons with different sexual orientations and how are they different?; 2) What does the Bible and Christian Tradition says about homosexuality?; 3) How shall we be apart of welcoming and weaving persons of various sexual orientations in the tapestry of God's love in Christ Jesus?
1. Who are persons with different sexual orientations and how are they different? Pay attention to how I have phrased this question. In this sanctuary are many persons with a variety of expressions of sexual orientation. We must begin by acknowledging the variety. Just as there are variances in race, ethnicity, and cultural backgrounds, so too are there varieties of sexual orientations.
Who are such persons? Simply and most importantly, they are our brothers and sisters, our children, our extended family, our co-workers, our neighbors, our friends, our church family. They live among us, work among us, worship among us, and share common hopes and dreams among us - and yet for many - they remain strangers at the gate (Matthew 25:43). I have learned in my journey from fear to faith that I should be afraid of folks who are homosexual. As such, the challenge is to overcome and outlive the statement: "We are `they' to `them' and `they' are `them' to us."
I have learned a few things through the years which I would like to share with you. If you know all this, please forgive the repeat of information.
First, the word "homosexual" was the creation of a 19th Century German psychologist which labeled "homosexuality" a disease. Trying to prove the pathological nature of homosexuality, science spent one hundred years of research and came up empty. In 1973 (under extreme protest from the Christian right-wing mind you!), the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of "mental disorders," declaring that it is not in itself a "psychiatric disorder." Change comes slowly though - doesn't it? Two weeks ago, China finally removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders! For the past 25 years, geneticists have begun to unravel DNA which shows that some people are simply born gay. Like so many other questions of "nature or nurture," the jury is still out about how one becomes gay or lesbian. The complex interactions of biological and environmental factors work together - just as they do in any person's life. Once asked to explain how and why someone becomes homosexual, Dr. Johnson of Masters and Johnson 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 have also learned that "homosexuality" is an orientation, not a lifestyle or 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 Keifer Hammersmith of Indiana University's Alfred Kinsey Research 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). In other words, preference precedes rather than follows behavior.
Often, people through the years have quoted testimonies of ex-gay ministries to me when speaking of how people are converted from homosexual to heterosexual orientation. Yet, in anonymous interviews the founders and leaders of "ex-gay ministries," (persons who have claimed publicly to be "cured" of their homosexuality) have most often been truthful in admitting that their feelings or orientations have not disappeared, even though they have sublimated their desires to act on their feelings. In reality, they are admitting being "ex-gays" but they are celibate gays - believing that they can honor and serve God this way (drawn from The Other Side special issue "Christians and Homosexuality," in an article by Letha Dawson Scanzoni, "Can Homosexuals Change?", p. 7).
I have also learned that although many people will say they have nothing against gay people, they find it hard to overcome learned prejudices and stereotypes and to truly accept and affirm the humanity and faith of people who are their gay brothers and sisters in Christ. Most often, I have heard the Bible used as the reason why the church can't fully welcome and affirm persons who are gay and lesbian. Folks say: "but the Bible says homosexuality is a sin and I can't go against the Bible."
When I ask where the Bible says this, they usually quote, if they know one of seven passages . . .
2. So "if the Bible told people so" about homosexuality, what does the Bible and Christian tradition say? This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the Bible does not have a great deal to say about homosexuality, and in the original texts from Hebrew, Greek, Syrian, and Aramaic homosexuality is never used. The word doesn't even appear in the Bible until the 1946 Revised Standard Version of the Bible used it. Today, depending on your bible of choice, you may or may not see the word and its cognates in your Bible.
There are however, seven passages - four in the Old Testament (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, and DT. 23:17-18) and three in the New Testament (Romans 1:18-32, I Corinthians 6:1-8 and I Timothy 1:9-10) which are most often used in arguments against homosexuality. These texts speak against same sex acts in a very negative light. They are all related to adultery, promiscuity, violence, or idolatrous worship.
Before looking closer - as an aside - you may be interested to know that all seven passages could fit in one page of the 1100 page Bible and make up less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the scripture God has given us. And by the way - do you know what two of the most written about topics of scripture are? #1 is how we care for the poor and #2 is how we are stewards of our resources and the earth God has given to our care! This is where our focus should be!....
Let's look at the Old Testament texts . . . Genesis 19 is 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 that the city might be spared from destruction. When the angels arrive they are befriended by Lot, Abraham's brother. Lot invites them into his home. The night before they go to bed, Lot's house is surrounded by all the males of Sodom, old and young, who demand that Lot bring his friends out of the house so that they "might know them." Lot pleads with the crowd on behalf of his visitors and 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 studying the passage, a large number of Christians assume that the sin of Sodom (for which the city is later destroyed) is homosexuality. This belief is entirely based on the assumption that "to know" is a euphemism for "sexual intercourse." Although "to know" refers in Hebrew to "sexual intercourse" in ten passages, in an additional 933 passages the word appears to have no sexual connotation at all. It doesn't have to mean "sexual intercourse" or "rape" in this case! Evidence would suggest that instead it means "knowledge or acquaintance" as this passage would suggest. I believe this is so, and as such the "sin of Sodom" is not male to male sexual intercourse but inhospitality.
Listen to the Old Testament prophets and the New testament writers on this if you question my interpretation. 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. In the NT, 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. And Jesus in Matthew 10:15 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 wicked, greedy, and self-centered people who refuse hospitality to strangers. Is it any wonder God was angry toward Sodom? Nevertheless, to this day, we continue to misinterpret and misuse this passage - even referring to our civil laws as "Sodomy laws" thus incorrectly using the word over and over again.
In the three laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy homogenitality is condemned. But is important to note that the concern is about impurity and wasting the seed of life and stands in reaction to pagan and Canaanite practices. Nevertheless, although the wording is a bit strange and the meaning is not entirely clear, the laws do exact punishment on offenders, even calling for the death of such offenders in Leviticus 20.
This raises two questions for me. First, if we choose to use and follow these laws to judge others, where do we begin and end in doing this? There are 613 laws in the Levitical and Deuteronomic law codes. Included in those laws are stoning children for disobedience, husbands and wives abstaining from sex except during fertile periods, and not harvesting the edge of the field. Which laws do we follow? Which laws do we not follow? Some suggest we ought to follow the Moral laws while abandoning the Ceremonial Laws. But, since Hebraic law makes no such distinction, the differences are anyone's best guess. Second, did not Jesus say he had come, not to destroy the law, but to fulfill the law? Did not his fulfillment of the law codes offer that the two laws of loving God, neighbor, and self captured the essence of all the law and prophets?
So what does the New Testament say? Speaking of Jesus, it is important to note that Jesus was silent on issues related to same-sex relations. While he addresses many issues head on, he says nothing about this. Why the silence? Well, either same sex issues were not an issue for Jesus, or he simply chose not to address the issue.
The Apostle Paul was not silent. (As one friend recently said, however, "I am not a disciple of Paul, I am a disciple of Christ." Nevertheless . . . ) In his 1983 book The New Testament and Homosexuality, New Testament scholar, Robin Scroggs posits that Paul was speaking, not against male to male sex, but against Pederasty - which literally means men having sex with boys - an open and common practice in many Hellenistic cities in the time of Paul. This is actually abuse and rape, not mutual love. Along with, I hope, all my colleagues and all of you, I am against this abusive use of power and sex. As Scroggs concludes, "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. 126).
Furthermore, Scroggs concludes 18 years ago: "Biblical judgements against homosexuality are not relevant for today's debate. They can no longer can be used in denominational discussion 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 is a powerful conclusion, but one which I share as well. In fact, in a 1995 issue of Christianity Today, popular conservative theologian John Stott told readers to stop using the biblical texts to prop up their arguments against persons who were homosexual. The case could not be made! (Quoted in a lecture by Virginia Ramey Mollencott, 3/4/95). " 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" (William Sloane Coffin).
The Judeo-Christian tradition is one that has much that is hopeful for all people. At its core moral teachings those which call us to be prayerful and reverent to God, respectful of others, loving and kind, forgiving and merciful, honest and just. We are called to work for harmony and peace. Stand up for what is true. To give of ourselves all that is good and pleasing to God while resisting all that is evil. To do live this way is to walk in the way of our Lord. These teachings are for everyone. To this high moral and ethical ground I invite everyone to ascend today.
3. In conclusion . . . The Church Universal has so far to go in welcoming and accepting persons with sexual orientations other than heterosexual. I stand before you today as living evidence that a person can change attitudes and belief systems and behaviors toward gay and lesbian persons. I also confess to you that there is so much more I need to learn. I am deeply disturbed today that the Church Universal has so far to go in opening hearts and minds to persons who Jesus would embrace. When confronted with bad laws and arcane attitudes in relation to the woman who was bleeding, Jesus broke taboos and healed the woman. But, healing and justice and mercy were always the way of Jesus - not judgement. I pray that healing and justice and mercy is our path, too.
I started my sermon with a story about a man cast out of his church as a Deacon. The man's name was Daniel Callahan. Almost five years ago I presided at Daniel's funeral. Following a 13 year battle with AIDS, Dan died early on the morning of July 4, 1996. In the summer of 2000, I also buried his partner, Pat Patterson.
I first met Dan when I received a call through the AIDS Task Force about a man needing a pastor. They had secured my name as one pastor they knew "who would not judge Dan because he was gay." I met Dan about seven weeks before his death. In those last weeks of his life, I came to know him as a gentle, spiritual man. After being tossed out of his church, he never returned to any church, although he continued his walk with his personal savior all the days of his life.
At his funeral I said these words, with which I end my sermon today. I mean these words as deeply and sincerely as I meant them on July 7, 1996.
To every one of you in this room I confess the sin of Christianity to judge, neglect, ignore, and cause you who are gay lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered, and friends and family of the same, such intense pain. I can't even begin to imagine all the pain, all the misery, all the loneliness, all the anger, all the sadness, all the rejection, and all the emptiness that mistreatment in God's name has caused you. I am deeply sorry for this sinful mistreatment. The Church has wronged you by such judgmental behavior. Now it is the church's time for confession. Now is the church's time to begin to do the right thing. Now is the time for the church to come out of the tombs of its misdeeds, and turn around and see the bright, resurrection light and the face of Jesus Christ - who loves and welcomes everyone and calls us to follow him in doing the same.
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