I approach the pulpit this morning with some trepidation. The task and privilege of preaching carries with it a variety of responsibilities. Most important - is telling the good news of Jesus Christ. This shouldn't be seen as a Christian pulpit if our primary focus weren't the joy of living in the grace of Christ. But in order to live and thrive in God=s word, we must be willing to be confronted by that Word. We must allow our current understandings, our cultural and religious traditions, and even our own histories to be challenged. This is no easy task when the thing we are challenging is an emotionally charged issue. And that is why this morning - and in the days ahead - I hope that we can all listen to one another with open minds, trying to discern God's true word. And I also ask that you give me a little more leeway than normal as we delve into a sensitive subject.
A few years ago I met a young man, Michael, who was dying of AIDS. While talking with Michael one afternoon he shared with me his despair that this disease might have been God's punishment. He had been told that he was separated from God because he was gay. Some people had told him that it was written right there in the Bible - written that homosexuals are an abomination - and that they are a disgrace in the eyes of God. And Michael was beginning to wonder if he might really be hated by God, because he was a homosexual. And in the midst of his pain, physical and emotional, he was unsure if he could turn to God for strength.
I began by telling you that I speak with trepidation. Yet I also speak with confidence that the issue must be dealt with - or others will speak for us. I also know that many of you see homosexuality as something that must be discussed within the church. This was evident in our Spring pulpit response Sunday, when we received more questions about homosexuality and the church than any other subject, including a number of questions asking what the Bible says about homosexuality.
These questions are especially timely since much of the current debate over the morality and value of homosexual lifestyles centers on the Bible. Religion has become the primary weapon used by those who oppose homosexuality. In this light, it would be irresponsible for the church to stay on the sidelines of the debate while opponents of this lifestyle make absolute claims for what the Bible says - appealing to what they say are biblical injunctions against homosexuality and claiming that others distort scriptures clear meaning. We need look no further than the letters to the editor in our local papers to find people making blanket statements condemning all homosexual behavior as sinful. Even Brookfield clergy have written.
What's troubled and amazed me is the use of scripture in a way that is A wholly inappropriate to any canons of biblical scholarship.@ 1 Opponents have taken the few references to homosexuality in the Bible - and let me assure you there are very few - and have isolated them from the rest of scripture, taken them out of their context and historical situation and turned them into absolutes. This is an especially dangerous practice when done to sanction hate against a group of people. And it is not the first time that the Bible has been used in this manner. Throughout history one group or another has bee singled out as less worthy than the rest of society, and blamed for many of society's ills. This has happened with A Jews, blacks, Native Americans, various ethnic groups, the poor, and women.@ 2 Homosexuality now appears to be just about the last respectable prejudice left.
Singling out a people as less worthy and even sinful has clear repercussions. It can be seen in the out of proportion number of homosexual suicides. People who have been taught that there's something wrong with them and given few places to turn for support. And it can be seen in violent acts taken out against homosexuals. Violent acts that the perpetrators see as justified. In a study of A400 young men incarcerated for gay bashing . . . it was found that the gay bashers generally found nothing wrong in what they did, and more often than not, said their religious leaders and traditions sanctioned their behavior.@ 3 It certainly could be argued that if homosexuality is a sin, religious leaders still should be speaking out against such lifestyles. But considering the potential impact of such proclamations, we're compelled to consider what the scriptures really tell us - if anything at all about homosexuality.
And that is what I will focus on this morning. Over the past few months I've spent a considerable amount of time studying those few passages that refer to homosexuality and reading pieces by both proponents and opponents of homosexuality.
So let's turn to the Bible itself and see what it says:
In the entire Bible, there are only eleven passages that make any reference to homosexuality - at all.
Our Hebrew Scripture for the day was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is probably the most cited passage by those making their case that homosexual relations are sinful. Their interpretation says that God destroyed these cities because the men of Sodom came to Lot=s house seeking homosexual relations with the two visitors. But if we are to responsibly read the passage we must note a few other facts about the story.
What the men of Sodom were seeking, was homosexual gang rape. Appalling as this may be, it wasn't a rarity in that day and was especially used to humiliate foreign men defeated in battle. The act wasn't that different from many of the rapes being perpetrated against Muslim women in Bosnia in hopes of destroying the enemy's morale. To claim that such a story was meant to demonstrate the depravity of all homosexual relations would be as irrational as claiming that the rapes in Bosnia demonstrate the depravity of all heterosexual relations.
Secondly, the primary meaning of the story appears to be a dramatic picture of the violent lack of hospitality shown to the two visitors - which was so essential to traveling people in the Mideast who had to rely completely on the good will of those they encountered on their journeys.
This failure to care about the well being of the travelers is what is stressed in other scriptural references to the sins of the men of Sodom - including Jesus' own words in Luke telling the disciples that if on their travels someone doesn't receive them into their town with kindness, that Aeven in Sodom it would be more tolerable.@ 4
It's truly ironic that a passage that was written, and for so many years condemned inhospitality and relationships of violence, is now used to justify doing the opposite in acts of hostility and violence towards homosexuals. 5
The other Old Testament passages that are often used in arguing against the acceptance of homosexuals are found in the legal code in Leviticus. There's no question that here there is clear legislation against homosexuality. Yet we should take note of a few facts about Israel's Holiness Code in Leviticus. First we must consider what else is contained in the code. There are commandments not to eat rare meat, not to wear garments made of two kinds of yarn, not to plant fields with two kinds of seed, no cutting of hair or getting tattooed - to name just a few. We don=t find many people out to condemn those who like their meat on the raw side, or condemning all of us wearing clothes made of more than one type of fiber. So why do many isolate the prohibitions against homosexuality from all the rest?
Most of the laws were developed out of the needs of the people of Israel in that time. In this same code the people of Israel are commanded not to harvest their crops all the way to the edge of the field. This seems like a strange command. Yet there was a reason. The edges of the field were to be left for the poor to come and take. Most of the commands found in the law probably had a similar logic behind them. Why the prohibition against homosexuality - we really have no way of knowing. But we should remember that nowhere in the rest of scripture is it repeated or even mentioned again!
In the New Testament, homosexuality is only mentioned three times - all three in letters written by Paul. It is important to emphasize right from the start, that each of these three references were written letters and that every letter has a unique nature - a specific message that the writer is trying to convey to a particular people, in a particular place, in a specific time, facing a particular situation. 6
Paul's letters are no exception. None of Paul's letters were written directly to us, even though they have great value to us, today almost two thousand years later. But the only way that Paul's writings can become real for us, and we can gain insight from them - is if we are willing to look at who Paul was writing to and what specific historical situation Paul was addressing.
In Paul's references to homosexuals in his letters to the Corinthians and to Timothy all we need to do is look at the original Greek words he used in the letters to refer to homosexuals to gain much insight into his objections. The two words used in these letters are generally accepted as referring, not to all homosexuals, but to male prostitutes, young call boys, sexual slaves, and the men who patronized them, in abusive ways. These are practices that even the most ardent supporter of a homosexual lifestyle would agree are sinful. 7
This leaves us with one final reference Paul made about homosexuals in his letter to the Romans. There is little question that in this letter, that tells of many actions which are against the will of God, Paul does condemn homosexuality. What isn't immediately clear is why. The purpose of this section of his letter isn't so much to condemn these vices, as it is to show Paul's concern that the Romans are worshiping things other than God. 8 And the vices are part of Paul's evidence of their idolatry. What we can do is look at the model of homosexuality that Paul is most likely considering in the letter. And the best scholarship believes Paul is addressing the pagan custom of Pederasty - a common form of homosexuality in the Greco - Roman world where a young boy is taken as an adult male's object. The boys were used and discarded at will by the adult males who were also usually married.
The language Paul used and his attitude toward Pederasty is borrowed from Jewish tradition. Paul has nothing new to say about it or homosexuality in general. In reality we don't know how Paul would have viewed a mutual loving adult homosexual relationship. He may or may not have approved. It is quite likely that he wouldn't have approved. Then again Paul thought marriage was for those who were too weak for celibacy. But we really don't know for certain.
Even if we see Paul's words in Romans as clear condemnation of homosexuality as a whole, we must remember that the only references to homosexuality in the New Testament comes from Paul's letters. And much of what Paul wrote on many other subjects including slavery, marriage, and government, has been either ignored or transcended by the church. 9 It seems reasonable that we should question why these three obscure references to homosexuality ought to be elevated in status beyond the rest of Paul's writings and made into an absolute.
That is about all there is. By no means have we gone through an exhaustive study of each of these passages, but we have looked at almost all of the passages in the Bible that mention homosexuality - three for the Hebrew Scriptures and three for the New Testament - none from the Gospels. Jesus himself either never said anything about homosexuality or what he said was deemed so unimportant that it went unrecorded. It is true that some of the passages we have discussed do condemn homosexuality. Yet there are very few, and the types of homosexuality they condemn are considered quite different than what anyone would call a loving, committed relationship. And none come from the Gospel.
We shouldn't forget that there are clearly both homosexual and heterosexual behaviors that are sinful and harmful - promiscuity, rape, pedophilia. Behaviors that abuse, denigrate and dehumanize.
Yet for whatever reason - homosexual behavior as a whole has recently become a prominent debate within our society. And much of the debate has turned hateful in the name of the Bible.
We should ask why those who claim to read the Bible literally have found ways to reject, or at least ignore much of what is acceptable according to many writers of scripture. Practices like polygamy and slavery. It's also hard to understand why self-proclaimed literalists are rarely compelled by the Bible's clear meaning regarding things like economic practices. How many of literalists can claim to have only one coat? It was Jesus himself who commanded that anyone with more than one coat should give the others to those with none. 10
Its helpful to note that no one truly reads the Bible literally. Both proponents and opponents of the homosexual lifestyles see their particular lens. There's no question that we all interpret scripture.
Having said all this, is there anything else the Bible tells us about how we should view homosexuality? First, within all of scripture, one can find a way to support almost any view on most any subject. But that far from renders scripture useless or without a guiding light. The father of the reformation, Martin Luther, maintained that there was a center to the biblical message, or at least to the Gospel. He believed that all scripture must be read through that central message. This central idea can't be summed up in a few verses of scripture. But must be found in light of the whole of the Bible and especially the Gospel. I must admit that there was a temptation to choose a scripture passage today that focused on the inclusiveness of Jesus' ministry. Yet that too would be proof texting, choosing an isolated passage that simply supported any message. But the truth of the matter is that the whole of Jesus' ministry was inclusive of the people society despised. Jesus' confrontations were primarily with societal standard bearers who excluded the minorities.
During the Pope's recent visit to the U.S., Cardinal O'Conner said, Athe church is counter cultural and will always be at odds with society.@ He was right, even though he may not support the church opposing societies intolerance of homosexuals. But he was right that the church, if it is true to the word of Jesus Christ, must challenge societies prejudice. And even more importantly the church must challenge it's own bigotry. The right use of the Bible calls us to confront our prejudices instead of confirming them.11 And the Gospel calls us to act on our virtues, not our fears of those who may be different than us. I am, like many of you, puzzled by homosexuality. Yet there are many things I don't fully understand - simply because they're outside my understanding doesn't make them sinful.
But what about Michael - the young man I told you about who was dying if AIDS? Be assured that after he spent much of the time with faithful Christians who accepted him as a homosexual, by the day he died, I believe Michael no longer saw the Bible as telling him he was separated from God or that his suffering came as punishment for who he was. Michael was an organized man - compulsive about details. He wanted to be thoroughly involved in the planning of what would happen in his funeral. And in the months before his death, I spent many hours planning with Michael, where it became quite clear it was his faith in God that made facing death a little less fearful. And in those final days what he valued most, was reading the Bible that gave him hope and told him the he was loved by God. He saw the Bible as a comfort telling him of God's endless love, and that God accepted and rejoiced that he was a good, caring, loving child of God.
1 Scroggs, p. v.
2 Scanzoni and Mollenkott, preface.
3 New York Times, OP-Ed 8-19-92
4 Luke 10:12
5 Martin Copenhaver, 1-18-87
6 Spong, p. 148
7 Scroggs, p. 109
8 Scroggs, p. 111
9 Spong, p.152
10 Luke 3:11
11 N.Y. Times OP-Ed 8-17-92.