(Here are my notes for my talk from Sunday)
Last week’s sermon, the first in a five part series brought to you by the letter “H,” focused on what the Bible actually says—and doesn’t say—about homosexuality. We took a look at the texts within their orginal context and asked how they apply to our context today, recognizing that things aren’t quite as black and white, or cut and dry, as we often think. I also highlighted the way that sincere Christians with sincere hearts have come to different conclusions on the matter, and that even if we don’t share in uniformity of interpretation we are responsible for sharing in integrity of interpretation.
Today, in part two, we are looking at what all of this means for our church. Goodness knows we don’t all agree. As I said last week, in the Disciples of Christ denominational tradition, our unity is not based on uniformity of opinion but on mutuality of love, which is actually pretty difficult to come by in a polarized culture like ours.
Over the course of time, my own view on these matters has shifted quite a lot. In my early days of ministry, I wasn’t sure whether to affirm homosexuality or to condemn it. To be honest, I didn’t think a lot about it. And because the bible only has five verses about homosexuality, out of about 30,000, I figured I’d pay most of my attention to what the bible talks about the most, which is probably the first thing we should consider doing as a church. As the Presbyterian scholar William Placher writes:
“Any honest reading of the Bible will make it clear that it takes sins like greed, hatred, and lack of compassion much more seriously than it takes any sins having to with [homosexuality]. If a [church] singles out homosexuals for judgment and doesn’t speak and act forcefully on other matters where the Bible is far more forceful, therefore, it looks as though its motive is not faithfulness to scripture, but accepting the prejudices of contemporary society. In such cases, while Christians may claim to stand up against the values of our culture, in fact they are yielding to them. Friends I respect who struggle with this issue sometimes say, ‘But the church needs to take a stand somewhere. We have given up on any number of points, but as some point we need to draw a line and say that this behavior may be increasingly acceptable in our society, but it is not acceptable to the Christian community.’ I understand this concern. But, if we learn anything about moral judgment from the Gospels, it is surely that Christians should focus on the sins that our society rarely criticizes, especially when they are committed by the rich and powerful, not those already condemned and despised, as homosexuality so often is. Even if one concedes that homosexual intercourse is a sin—and, for reasons already noted, the biblical evidence does not persuade me of that—it is also a form of behavior that gets people fired from their jobs, beaten up, called rude names, generally treated with contempt in many parts of our society, and sometimes even murdered. As I write this, the top selling album in the country, by a young white ‘rapper,’ Eminem, includes songs that talk vividly about beating up and killing homosexuals. A version of the album for sale in chain stores in more conservative parts of the country has the worst of its profanity eliminated, but leaves these references to violence unchanged. Those who grow up gay generally have a hard time of it in contemporary America. Thus, the patterns of Jesus’ ministry would clearly imply that, even if homosexual behavior were a sin, here is precisely not the place to ‘draw the line.’ Far better to draw it in the face of a sin like greed, which our culture generally treats with something like admiration, especially when it is masked as ‘success.’ Jesus, after all, singled out for particular condemnation the sins that his society accepted as compatible with respectability. Those who were condemned by society anyway he tended to treat rather generously. Here as elsewehere, Jesus stood with the outsiders, the disreputable, and the fearful, rather than the self-confident and self-righteous.” (Placher, Jesus the Savior, 101-2)
So the first thing we must do as a church is consider where Jesus would stand on all of this–or, perhaps more precisely, who Jesus would stand with.
My mind has changed a lot on this over the years. Throughout the course of my own ministry I started meeting more and more people who came to me in pastoral confidence and talked to me about their struggles growing up as a gay person in our society in general and in the church in particular (feelings of hurt, rejection, and depression, often feeling suicidal).
I used to kind of think about homosexuality as a sin along the same lines of alcoholism or adultery (and I should “love the sinner but hate the sin”), but after a while even that didn’t add up in my mind. For instance, if one is an alcoholic, and gives up drinking, one’s life improves, it gets better. And if in a relationship neither partner cheats on the other, well, obviously, that’s much healthier for the relationship. But throughout the course of my pastoral ministry, I started to notice that people who are gay don’t tend to get better over time when they try to renounce their sexuality. I know several people who have gone to counseling to try to become straight, or have literally had people pray in exorcism fashion for their “gay” demons to leave them, but none of it worked. Then I started to notice that the gay people I knew who were most healthy were actually the ones who had come to terms with their sexuality and didn’t try to repress or ask God to change it, but had accepted it as part of who God created them to be. And I started to think that people don’t choose to be gay anymore than I chose to be straight. Why in the world would someone choose to go through such heartache and pain? It didn’t make sense to me.
All of those experiences changed my mind in pretty signficant ways, so much so that I now view things much differently than I did when I first started ministry. Now I tend to think that the bible reflects the prejudices of ancient culture on this matter in the same way it does regarding slavery, or viewing women as property, or any number of things that our culture no longer affirms or accepts. My perspective can best be summarized in a quote from John Caputo: “My own view is that the outcome of a careful debate about these matters would be to show that there simply are no arguments to show that homosexual love is of itself anything else than love, and that therefore, since the essence of the Torah is love, it hardly falls afoul of the law. To be sure, when it is not love, when it is promiscuity, or infidelity to a sworn partner, or rape, or the sexual abuse of minors, or in any way violent, then it is indeed not love, but that is no less true of heterosexuality.” (Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?)
With all this said, I also recognize that there are very good and sincere people of faith who disagree with me. Some are dear friends who I have known for years, while others I’ve grown close to through church. It’s not that they’re heartless people, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not that they’re insincere in their faith; hardly at all. We simply interpret this differently. But their faith is every bit as sincere as my own. And no matter which “side” of this debate you are on, I would guess that you’ve had a similar experience with your own friends from time to time, including your friends here at church.
I also recognize that I speak to the church but not for the church. When I share my perspectives with others, I’m always quick to point out that these are my perspectives, and I am not necessarily speaking for Brentwood. I speak to the church but not for the church.
In June, the General Minister and President of our denomination, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, wrote a pastoral letter for Disciples of Christ churches that I found to be really helpful when considering what all of this means for our church, and I think you will as well. She writes:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In fielding questions from Disciples, I am asked, “Where are we with respect to sexual orientation?” Since the question comes up frequently, I would like the Church to know how I answer it.
I respond, “Some faithful Disciples, in deep study of scripture and with much prayer, have come to the conclusion that sexual orientation is part of how each one of us is created by God. Other faithful Disciples, in deep study of scripture and with much prayer, have come to the conclusion that homosexuality is sin. What makes us Disciples is that at the Table of the Lord, people of both points of view – and everyone in between – are welcome.”
Followers of Jesus have always been diverse. Matthew, the tax collector, a servant of the Roman Empire, was among the twelve. So was Simon, the Zealot, working to overthrow the Roman Empire. Yet these two were known by one name: disciples. Disciples of Christ today still hold different perspectives on controversial issues. Yet “God’s covenant of love . . . binds us to God and to one another.” “Through baptism into Christ we . . . are made one.” (Preamble to the Design.)
Our confession of faith in Jesus Christ brings us into fellowship with one other. We value iindividual and congregational freedom of belief and conscience. We gather with our differences;iunited by and in Christ alone. Among Disciples, a core manifestation of our unity with diversity has always been the open Table. Knowing that the Table is the Lord’s, we make room for whoever will come at Christ’s gracious invitation. All are welcome. Diverse though we may be, we, too, call ourselves by one name: Disciples.
Our challenge (as individual brothers and sisters in Christ and as congregations) is to help each other feel welcome and also safe at the table of our Lord. All tables of the church must be safe places, where respect for diversity among God’s children is honored. As self-governing ministries, in covenant with one another, our challenge is to make room for each other within one Church – even when we make different decisions on important matters. In the past, maintaining the respect and safety of the Table has challenged Disciples. In the era of slavery and abolition Disciples did not divide, but stayed at the common table. Today, the politicized and polarized character of the sexual orientation and equality debate again poses such challenges. This is the time to use our best table etiquette of entering into dialogue in love even in our diversity of opinion. This is the time for the church to show the world that wholeness wins out over fragmentation.
Approaching each other in love is especially difficult in matters at the core of our humaniidentity. Human sexuality is not an “issue;” it’s who we are. It’s about all of us – including our friends and family members who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender – children of God with names and stories and a faith journey to recount.
Along with the question, “where are we on this?” some are calling for the Church “to vote and take a clear position” – that is, “to decide” about how Disciples understand the Gospel call related to sexual orientation in our church. The truth is, in standard Disciples fashion, “the Church” already is deciding – all over the place – in congregations and regions and individual hearts. It’s just that, in keeping with our diversity, we are coming to different conclusions. This is an Ephesians 4 moment when we are called to “bear with one another in love.”
When people from across the life of the Church talk to me, I am always astonished to heariboth conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples (and moderates, for that matter) share deep feelings of disenfranchisement. The two “sides” think the other either rejects the authority of Scripture or holds a legalistic interpretation of select passages. Each believes another is setting the agenda. In reality, I am convinced that we all are trying to be faithful to the Gospel as we understand it, and sometimes that feels like a lonely place.
As General Minister and President I continue to work for and pray for God’s justice – the day when no member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) feels unheard or rejected or treated like a “second class citizen” within the fellowship of the church because of their understanding of human sexuality or their sexual orientation.
In the meantime, Disciples, let us engage in our “best practice” of welcoming all to the Lord’s Table, making sure all are welcome and safe. Let us maintain and create church processes that allow individuals and congregations to live together with our different decisions.
At the Lord’s Table, God welcomes us to share in fellowship with the entire Body of Christ. At the Table we become Christ’s body for the world. Through the church, we have the opportunity to extend to others the grace of inclusion that God extends to us in our own search for faithful understanding and right action.
We are diverse communities, but all Disciples. We are many members, but one body of Christ. My prayer is that we can continue to cherish each other in Christian love even as we continue to live for awhile with the ambiguities of our different conclusions. May we make room for each other at the literal and metaphorical tables of the Church.
May we bear with one another in love.