The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
You know those shows where people call in and vote on the issues? There’s always like 18% that say, “I don’t know. It costs 90 cents to call and vote. They’re voting “I don’t know.”
“Honey, I feel strongly about this. Give me the phone.”
“I don’t know!” (Hangs up) Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe you aren’t sure about.
Here in the year 2000, our church is struggling over the issue of homosexuality. Last week at Long Beach, the annual national gathering of the Presbyterian Church, the General Assembly, voted 51% to 48% to send a proposed amendment to its presbyteries that would prohibit ordained church officers from performing or participating in ceremonies for same sex unions.
While I want to address this issue of homosexuality, the underlying issue is bigger than homosexuality. This issue of homosexuality is just one more straw on the church’s back. There are two big interrelated issues we are struggling with. First we have different understandings of the nature of scripture.
On one extreme are those who believe the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, unchanging word of God that tells us everything we need to know for all time, without error. For example, the Baptist Church just decided they had gone to far with equal rights for women and returned to what they see as the biblical standard: women can no longer serve as leaders in the church over men, and are ordered to be obedient and submissive to men. Even with such pride in biblical faithfulness, I don’t expect them to return to biblical law on money lending.
At the other extreme are those who feel the Bible is an outdated relic that is not relevant to modern life, and people need to decide what is right for them.
Yet I suspect there is a second, bigger issue still. And that is the struggle to establish a balance between a desire to be inclusive with our need for boundaries. Thus while I disagree with the far right and feel they abuse and misunderstand the purpose of scripture, I can empathize with the conservative who desires clear boundaries.
At this time debate within our culture as well as the church is polarized by the extremes, as if the only possible options were clearly before us: black or white, all the old values, or none of them. It appears we can only choose to throw out the baby with the bathwater, or deny the bathwater ever needs changing.
This of course is foolishness. I do not want to go back to the time when women could not serve as ministers or vote, or when people of color were not considered people. I don’t want to go back to the time when all sex, even that within marriage was considered vile, when only the missionary position was permitted and only for the purpose of procreation.
The fact is there never has been a time when all our morals and laws were static. There have been times of greater stability, but there was never a time when God decided he was through working with his people. The Bible is a story of transitions, a story of a people, growing and stumbling, struggling and searching for God’s will.
Our lectionary, the guide that gives us weekly passages for worship, skipped uncomfortable parts of this story. We prefer a selective reading of the Bible. It is easier to preach, easier to believe. Our beliefs are the way they have always been. We know what we are talking about.
David is anointed king over Israel at Hebron. But it was not a unanimous vote among the inhabitants of Palestine. So David moved to counter separatist politics by seeking a new, centrally located capital in the city of Jerusalem. Since Jebusites said even the lame and blind would turn David’s army back, David took no mercy, instruction his soldiers to leave no survivors. The narrator uses the story to explain the rule excluding the lame and blind from the house of David. In Jerusalem David built up a stronghold and took more concubines and wives and had more sons and daughters.
A concubine, of course, is a woman taken into a man’s house for the purpose of sexual relations and childbearing. Usually she would be of a lower social status, a slave, or taken in war so she was not considered marriage material. This was not considered adultery since the woman would be the man’s possession. Adultery was sleeping with a woman who was the possession of another man: the issue was disrespecting or devaluing the property of another man, or calling into question his blood line. So anyway, David was blessed with all sorts of women to have sex and children with.
Verse 10 says David became greater and greater for the Lord, the God of Hosts, was with him. And in verse 12 the Lord exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.
It was assumed by David’s scribes that the creator God was the God exclusively for Israel. Those who were not God’s people could be exterminated. Kingdom was the order of the day, not democracy, and as Mel Brooks would say, it was good to be the king. Noting appeared out of order when David took even more wives and concubines, or when the law excluded the lame and the blind.
This is not to say that David was not blessed by God, nor to say God was not using David for his great plan. It is just to say that what God permits or prohibits in one time may not be his intention for all time. God uses people who cannot fully understand God’s purposes and intentions.
For even in the midst of a world of rape and pillage, concubinage and demonizing of the handicapped, we get the story of a God who creates humanity out of love, and liberates the poor and oppressed and takes them toward a promised land. Through David, we can see that God is on the move.
There are several other major transformations of Judean culture attested to in scripture. Then in the first century there was another. The old understanding of the law was being used to exploit and oppress. Many reformulations were taking shape at the time, that of Jesus being only one of many. Yet we believe Jesus was sent by God, God’s son sent to show the way, a new way to be king. Jesus claimed that too much emphasis was being placed on the detail of the Law, and not enough on the intention of the Law. The Law, he said, was meant to do good, not harm. The whole of the Law can be summed up with this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
These commandments are the tools with which Christians can interpret their current context and formulate boundaries. Sure they could not see everything clearly, but they could forge ahead into the future by faith in God’s grace, demonstrated by Jesus himself.
In today’s New Testament passage, we see signs that this first century shakeup in Judean culture did not resolve itself overnight. Did Christians have to fulfill the purity code or not? Some claimed they had to fulfill all of it, others none of it. The conservatives feared that if they gave any ground, all boundaries would give way and the culture would slip into moral anarchy. Thus it was with great surprise that Peter received his vision. By the grace of Jesus Christ, God was changing a law that had been on the books for a thousand years. Even after having the vision three times, Peter is still greatly puzzled.
But then he receives a request to minister to a gentile. Then, while preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, of his death, resurrection and forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the gentiles. This surprising event of Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit led to a general assembly in Jerusalem. The apostles found a middle ground on the side of inclusivity. Yet this was still not the end of the issue. Disciples would be killed over it.
Over the years Peter and Paul and the other disciples had to iron out the new boundaries. Jerusalem said they could eat just about anything except blood and were refrain from being things polluted by idols and from fornication. But what exactly constituted pollution by idols? Hundreds of such questions arose.
By the grace of God, Paul, Peter and group did the best they could. They could not rip apart the whole culture. As Jesus said in John – “there are many things I have yet to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.”
As a Chinese philosopher wrote, “the object of a great revolution is the attainment of clarified, secure conditions, ensuring a general stabilization on the basis of what is possible at the moment.”
Thus Paul and Peter moved us closer to God’s vision for humanity. By the Grace of Jesus Christ, the poor and unclean, the handicapped and people of other cultures were included into God’s kingdom. Concubinage and polygamy were out because they represented inequality, exploitation and excessive concern for power, privilege and pleasure. Yet even as Paul says there is no longer slave nor free, male nor female, Gentile nor Jew, for all are one in Christ Jesus, he could only realize the elimination of one of those three categories. Paul gave in to the culture on the issue of slavery and position of females. The original egalitarian vision of Pentecost could not be maintained. Such a radical departure was not attainable in that moment.
Homosexuality, as it was understood at that time, was also considered by Paul to be beyond the boundaries of the Christian life. Besides being, what Paul considered unnatural, it represented another example of excessive desire for the pleasures of this world. It revealed an idolatry of our own desires. Indeed, even sexuality within the boundaries of marriage was considered a weakness by Paul. To me it appears Paul is a bit excessive. I believe he had the right intention, but it is hard for me to believe God created us as sexual beings and then said you can’t acknowledge joy from this gift.
David, Peter, and Paul were great men, blessed by God who achieved revolutionary accomplishments in the direction of God’s vision for humanity. Yet they were captive to their culture and could only see and do so much. The Bible itself testifies that the Law goes through transition and reformulation. This process did not stop with Paul’s death.
What we learn from Scripture about such times is to beware of getting bound in the details of the law. Instead we need to keep the intention of the law in mind. Verse 5 summed this up in this “Love the lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The negative of these are: beware of idolatry and beware of pleasing yourself at the expense of others.
To the degree our sexuality, whether homosexual or heterosexual is valued over and above God and others, it must be opposed by the Church. By the grace of God, part of God is in us, but we are not gods. Promiscuity that breaks trust, risks disease and death is wrong. For a gazillion reasons waiting for sex until one is ready for commitment is harder than it ever has been. Even as we acknowledge God is gracious even to youth, I see no way around commitment before sex.
Yet knowing, as we do now that most with homosexual orientation wished they didn’t have such an orientation before they may finally come to terms with it, knowing that not all but most with homosexual orientation have had little choice in the matter, could it be possible that God would be leading us to permit homosexual relations with the boundaries of a committed relationship under God?
If you have faith that Jesus is Lord and show signs of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, does God show distinction between them and us? And should we place on their necks the yoke of lifelong chastity that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?
“Honey, I feel strongly about this, give me the phone. I don’t know.” I wish we had another twenty years to decide. Perhaps the mapping of our genes will help. Still, if I am unsure yet forced to choose: as a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant living with the legacy of the crusades, the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of the Africans, the Holocaust of the Jews, and the subservient status of women, with this legacy if I am forced to risk error, I’m going to go with what I see as the overall slow movement of the holy Scripture and church toward greater inclusivity.
For a more personal reason: I had a sheltered childhood with middle class kids that looked like me. One day my father took us to a park in another town we called the Fire Engine Park. While playing on the fire engine, other children came to play; they looked different. I was unsure of myself. Part of me wanted to stay and play. Another part was afraid of these unknown people. I walked away. Hurt and angry, they chased us. I was wrong to fear them, wrong to run away. By the grace of God, I will not run away because of fear of the unknown again. When unsure yet forced to choose, when I have to risk error, I’m going to risk error on the side on inclusivity. Surely God’s grace will forgive even me.
We are all in need of dialogue, in need of prayer. Lord Jesus, you are our God, the one who died that we would know forever the one who was risen that your spirit may live in us. Spirit give us words to pray, send us the clarification of your wisdom, keep us united around your mission and your Grace. We pray for those with homosexual orientation, may they hear your word and feel your love uncluttered by our confusion, fear, and stubbornness. May they know both the grace of your inclusive love and your boundaries. Lord we thank you for the gift of sexuality in a way that gives us glory to you and respect to others. Give us the courage to change the things that should be changed, the grace to accept those things that cannot be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.