A Difficult Sermon
February 24, 2019
Today is indeed a difficult sermon. There is not enough time this morning to say everything that needs to be said. I know we are not of one mind. I’m hoping people are here today with an openness to hear what I have to say. It is prayerfully done. It is from the heart. It is not meant to be disrespectful. But as I announced to you: if the United Methodist Church is going to decide to be less united because of this, then I have to speak.
In 1973, the American Psychological Association declassified Homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1972, was the first time homosexuality was openly debated at a General Conference: it has been debated every GC since. Language was added that homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching. Language was added that you could not be ordained as a Homosexual. Still later, language was added where clergy were not allowed to preside over same gender weddings. People who support the church’s position on this are clear that they feel this is based on what the Bible says, and is the moral high ground. People who disagree with the church’s position are equally clear that the Bible doesn’t say what some people thinks it says. Concerned Methodists is an organization that supports the church’s current position. They believe homosexuality is a matter of choice, and focus on the behavior. People who disagree with the church’s position say no, it is a matter of orientation, it is a matter of being created that way. Some people who agree with the church’s position believe in Conversion Therapy, that you can pray the gay away. Personal experiences of many say that is not true.
Currently there is a movie out called Boy Erased which is based on a book by Garrard Conley, 1who went through one of these programs. The son of a Baptist minister he wanted to be able to pray the gay away. He loved God, he loved his family, he knew that identifying as a homosexual meant he would be rejected by the church and his family. But no matter how hard he tried, all the experience did was make him feel separated from God and contemplate suicide. He came from a church that considered crucifixes as a form of idolatry, along with Astrology, Dungeons and Dragons, Eastern religions, Ouija Boards, and interestingly enough: Yoga. At the program he went to, Classical Music was banned, Beethoven and Bach were considered not Christian. Each person had to do a Genogram, outlining family history in a way that identifies problems, that could be the reason people thought they were gay. A parent’s alcoholism, or even a disinterested parent could be seen as the reason. In Conley’s case, they focused on his Dad, and feeling distant from him. I mentioned pray the gay away, in the movie there is a scene where the plan was to beat the gay away. 2A young man was put in the center of the room, and his family members, including his younger sister, hit him with the Bible so he would change his ways. He later committed suicide.
One of the things that bothers me when we have this conversation or debate, is how much harm is done to people. There has to be a healthier way to talk about this, so that our youth and young adults don’t feel so alienated from the church that they have no choice but to leave, or worse: to feel so judged that they feel suicide is the only way out. On one website designed to support those who survived this conversion experience, one person said that: “It elevated sexuality from being part of my life to being the central fact of my life; everything revolved around it and fear of it and of being discovered.” 3 There is definitely a way in which the church’s discussion of homosexuality overshadows everything else. This in and of itself isn’t healthy. Our discussion of it, is in far greater volume than what the Bible says about it. Let’s talk about the Bible, even though there isn’t enough time to cover everything:
First of all, how we interpret scripture changes over time. Period. A great example is our view of slavery. The Bible was used as evidence that slavery was part of God’s ordained plan. Fortunately, the church changed it’s mind. But not before the Methodist Episcopal Church split over it. There’s also the decision that women should be ordained. The Bible used to be used as an argument against that. But some people pointed to Matthew 7:20: by their fruit you will recognize them. People pointed out that some women were really good preachers; they were obviously filled with the Holy Spirit: would God so bless them that they bore good fruit and yet God’s intention was that they should not be ordained? Or going back even further: scripture was used to say gentiles could not be part of this new Christian thing, unless they converted to Judaism and followed those laws. But the community saw the Holy Spirit at work within Jew and Gentile alike and decided this was a new thing God was doing in their midst. Even within the Bible itself, beliefs and understandings change over time.
Science can also change our interpretation. The church taught that the earth was the center of the universe. When Galileo Galilei said that the earth revolves around the sun, that was seen as blasphemous. He was fighting against a world that saw it as common sense that of course the earth was at the center of the universe. In addition, scripture like Psalm 93:1 which says: “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved” was used as evidence that Galileo was wrong. Eventually, science proved it. The church’s interpretation of scripture was wrong.
One of the scriptures that is often pointed to is the passage about Sodom and Gomorrah. 4Genesis 13:13 says: “the men of Sodom were wicked and sinning greatly against the Lord.” But the nature of their sin is not specified. In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah give hospitality to two strangers, two angels who appear in human form. He gives great hospitality, calls them Lord, washes their feet, all the things that are considered proper in that day. In this context, God promises Abraham and Sarah a son. He also says he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their sin is grievous. (Genesis 18:20-21). Then in Genesis 19, the same two angels appear to Lot. He also gives them hospitality, as Abraham did. But then the men of the city surround the house that night. They want to attack the two guests. The angels make these men go blind, but then tell Lot to leave the city, for they have been sent to destroy the two towns. The two cities are mentioned 13 times in the Old Testament after this passage in Genesis, each time in reference to their wickedness. In Isaiah 1:4, 10, their sins are described as oppressing marginalized groups, murder and theft. In Jeremiah 23:14, he declares that adultery, idolatry, and power abuses of false prophets rendered them “all like Sodom.” In Amos 4 and Zephaniah 2, Sodom is mentioned in regards to God’s judgment on those who oppress the poor, or exhibit prideful and mocking behavior. In Ezekiel 16:49-50, in the New International Version it says:
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. Sexuality is not mentioned in any of the references.
There is also often reference made to the fact that in Leviticus it is referred to as an “abomination.” But so too is charging interest on loans (Ez. 18:13) and burning incense (Isaiah 1:13). In Deuteronomy there is a long list of abominations, including eating pork, and shellfish. (Dt. 14:3-21) If you are really interested in this, maybe I can do a class where there is an examination of these texts.
One of the things I learned getting ready for this sermon, which really surprised me, is that a lot of these texts is about men specifically, warning them to not be like women. The patriarchal culture weighs in, monitoring men’s behavior, because women had less value than men, so the admonitions, often pertain to behavior and value. It’s not even about homosexuality per say because it does not include women in what prohibitions are listed. In addition, there is nothing that addresses sexual orientation. In fact, this is where science should affect our interpretation of scripture. The vast majority of the world’s psychologists agree that sexual orientation is a real thing, that it is not a matter of choice. If it is not a matter of choice, if it is about who someone is, and something that can’t and doesn’t change, then we need to look at it differently. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that addresses two people in a committed, monogamous relationship. In our United Methodist heritage, we talk about four things that guide our understanding: scripture is first, but we are also supposed to use tradition, reason and experience. My personal experience is that I know multiple couples who are in good, healthy, loving relationships, raising families, who are people who should be admired and supported, not judged or condemned.
In today’s scripture passage, I see a challenge in a big picture way of how some people treat homosexuals. The Jesus who teaches us to love our enemies, would he approve of homosexuals who are beaten, or driven from their families, or driven from their church? The Jesus who says: Judge not that ye be not judged – I think that Jesus would say, when it comes to morality, we are responsible for our choices. But we need to be careful of thinking we know enough to judge others.
Fact is: Homosexuality is a minority of the human population, estimated to be 4.5%. 5 When you are in the minority you are often treated as “less than”; the minority almost by definition is in a weaker position than the majority. I believe it is also true that, by and large we are not comfortable talking about sexuality. If we are a heterosexual man or woman, someone sharing their attraction to the same gender tends to make people uncomfortable. It is thus very easy to assume there is something wrong with someone when they do things, or feel things that are different from the majority. But when we take the time to talk with someone, to listen, to hear their journey, we are not going to be as quick to judge and to condemn.
One of the books I used to help me prepare for this sermon is called “God and the Gay Christian”, by Matthew Vines. He grew up in an evangelical home. He heard all the teaching against homosexuality. He loved God, and took the Bible very seriously. He decided to sit down and really study God’s word, and see what it said about homosexuality, not just what people said it says. I used a lot of his research. But moving to me was his example of his father. His father said the worst day of his life was when his son came out to him as gay. But he was willing to sit down with his son and listen. He was willing to hear his experience, that it wasn’t about behavior or choice, but about orientation and who he felt God made him to be. What was abnormal to his father was normal to him. They sat down and studied the Bible together and his father discovered the Bible didn’t say some of the things he thought it did. He opened his heart, and decided that a loving and committed gay couple could be as faithful, according to God’s word, as a heterosexual couple.
There’s an old fable about the chicken and the pig. That if there is a meal of eggs and bacon the sacrifice being asked of the pig is far greater than the chicken. I find that analogy comparable to this situation, where heterosexual people who have nothing to lose are placing themselves on the seat of judgment for those who lose everything: a relationship with God, a seat on the pew, a family.
Long ago, when I was first trying to wrestle byway through this I was stuck by the fact that none of us could be sure who was right and who was wrong. But I knew with every fibre of my being that I needed to err on the side of grace. To err on the side of grace. To err on the side of grace. That to me means listening. That to me means sharing a pew. That to me means being in relationship, even when we disagree. We need to be merciful as God is merciful, we need to love all, as God loves and embraces all.
When we talk about homosexuality, we have to understand we are talking about people who are part of this congregation, whether you know it or not. We are talking about someone’s father, another one’s brother, a third one’s son. We are talking about someone’s sister. Wouldn’t we prefer that we talk about it with love in our hearts, and in our words? One of the things that bothered me so much in a General Conference, I think 2012, was when one delegate said that people in the LGBT+ are not worthy of God’s grace. That is so wrong. We are all made in the image of God. We are all worthy of judgment. We all strive to be people of love and grace. We all sometimes fail. We all need God’s grace. We are all worthy of God’s grace.
1 Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley Riverhead Books
2 Boy Erased Perfect World Pictures
4 Most of my scripture interpretations comes from God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships by Matthew Vines. Convergent Books; Reprint edition (June 16, 2015)
5 news.gallup.com May 22, 2018