Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sin With A Dash of Salt

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 18:20-26, 32-33; 19:1-13, 24-29:

There is a famous cartoon in which a minister is standing before the congregation and he’s saying “There are some things I need to say to you,” and outside the church window you can see a moving truck being pulled up.  I was thinking of that carton this week as I prepared this sermon, and found it widely appropriate for what I am going to say, and maybe what I have to say today will make sure that I get lots of people to help show up to pack up the moving truck so you can make sure that I am actually gone, and at the very least it will give the town something else to gossip about besides for the fact that you are getting a female preacher.  But there are some caveats that I have to make at the start here.  The first is that this is going to be a PG message, because in order to deal with this passage we are going to have to deal with some sticky subjects.  The second caveat is that Sodom and Gomorrah is not about homosexuality.  I know that will come as a shock to many of you because it’s so often interpreted in that manner, but the story doesn’t present it as such, nor do the other references to this story in the rest of the scripture deal with it in that sense, and this is the most referenced story from the Book of Genesis in the rest of scripture.  The final caveat is that even though this story is not about homosexuality, at the end I am going to talk about how I this issue, and I do so for the very simple reason that when I asked a year ago last fall for questions people had that they wanted addressed, one of those questions was “How should we as Christians think about homosexuality?”

A year ago I couldn’t have answered that question, not because I didn’t have the answer, but because we didn’t have the relationship that I believed was necessary in order to cover this very controversial subject.  I hope that now after two years you know and trust me, or like me enough, to be open to what I have to say, or perhaps you’ve learned to ignore what I have to say and so it won’t matter.  Hopefully you also know that I love you enough to be saying this out of love, and we also know that we don’t have to agree with each other in order to be in relation with each other.  What I have to say might make you furious with me, you might want to argue with me afterwards, and that’s okay, but it’s because of those feelings that I also approach today’s sermon with great fear and trepidation, and all I can do is to tell you where I am, how I got here, and how I read scripture to allow me to think what I do about my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters

So back to the scripture passage.   The passage begins with God talking about the cry that has arisen against Sodom and Gomorrah, and then it says “the men turned from there and went towards Sodom,” while Abraham and God remain to have a conversation.  The men here are not really men, but instead they are angels in disguise.  These are the same men that had appeared to Abraham and Sarah to announce to them that even at their advanced age that Sarah is going to become pregnant.  But what is also crucial in this story is how Abraham and Sarah respond to these guests making their way to their tent.  We are told that Abraham to meet them and bowed down at their feet, and then he has then settled in the shade, has their feet washed, and then had his finest calf slaughtered to provide them with a meal.  This is the example of how strangers are to be welcomed and treated.  Within Judaism, there are 613 Mitzvah, or laws that they are to follow, but hospitality is known as a great Mitzvah, which means that it trumps other things.  If someone has to choose between different rules, showing hospitality or charity is more important than other things like attending classes, attending worship or even praying.

And so Abraham demonstrates the example of radical hospitality, or really from a biblical perspective he demonstrates normal hospitality, but his charity and compassion extend not just to these strangers but to others he doesn’t have anything to do with as well, which is what follows in his conversation with God.  God tells Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed for their sin, but Abraham argues with God, to make sure that those who are righteous will not be destroyed on account of those who are wicked.  Abraham gets God down to agreeing that if there are even 10 righteous people that the cities will be destroyed.  What Abraham does is striking, first because he dares to challenge God and in doing so he demonstrates that righteousness must also involve concern for the other, compared against Noah.  But, the second striking thing is that Abraham also proves that the lives of righteous people can cover the sins of the entire populace, not because the righteous seek out to tell everyone else how wrong they are, or how they should be living and behaving, and thus saying look at how good I am.  Instead, the righteous can cover the sins of other simply by being righteous themselves, they are like yeast, just a little bit can affect the entire loaf, which leads us to Lot.

Just like Abraham, Lot greets the strangers with great hospitality; he bows down before them, invites them into his home, and “urges them strongly” not to stay in the square, which is sort of the first indication that something is rotten in Denmark, as Shakespeare said.  Once there he too prepares them a feast.  Lot demonstrates his righteousness to the angels the same way that Abraham demonstrates his righteousness.  But then the trouble begins.  We are told that “all the people to the last man” come to Lot’s home, notice that women are not mentioned here, and they demand that Lot send the strangers out so that they might rape them.  (lot tries to talk them out of it, offers them his daughters) but the judgment that is made against the town is not because they seek to have a male on male sexual encounter.  Instead it’s because of their breach of hospitality and treatment of the stranger, and here is another way we know this.

As I already said, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is referenced more than any other story from Genesis in the rest of scripture, but in only two places does that reference have anything to do with sexual behavior.  Those two passages are found in the letter of Jude and in 2 Peter.  But the issue of both of those is not about male on male sexual relations, but instead the fact that the men wanted to rape angels, and so they were concerned about those who wanted to go after a different order of flesh.  In every other case, it is not the fact that men want to rape other men that causes the problem it is the fact that they do not practice hospitality; they do not welcome the stranger.  This is what Ezekiel has to say, “As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.  This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them.” (Ezek 16:48-50a)  While Ezekiel does say they did abominations, there are lots of things besides gay behavior which is described as being an abomination in God’s eyes.  When Jesus makes reference to Sodom, it is reference to towns who don’t do what?  They don’t welcome the disciples of the gospel message into their homes.  So it’s a refusal of welcome, a refusal to offer hospitality that engenders judgment.  But there is one other story that highlights the sin of Sodom, and it is a story found in chapter 19 of the book of Judges.

A Levite is traveling back home along with his concubine.  As it begins getting dark they enter into the city of Gibeah, which was an Israelite city populated by people from the tribe of Benjamin.  They go to the city square, where no one welcomes them, but then an old man sees them, tells them not to spend the night in the square, and brings them into his own home.  Then all the men of the city surround the home and begin pounding on the door telling the old man to send the men out so that they might rape them, and the old men leaves the house and begs the men not to do what they are asking for, and instead offers his own virgin daughter as well as the Levite’s concubine to let the men do whatever they want to do with them. The men outside refuse this offer.  Sound familiar?  Now in the Sodom story at this point the angels pull Lot back inside and strike everyone else blind so they can’t do anything to them.  But in this story, the Levite grabs his concubine and pushes her outside, where the men precede to gang rape her for the rest of the night.  The Levite, finding her dead in the morning, carries her body back to his home and then cuts the body into pieces and sends the pieces to the other tribes in Israel calling them to rise up against Gibeah for what happened.  But the crime was not the rape of his concubine or even her death, the crime was their lack of hospitality.  Their threats of rape were not the cause of the punishment; they were the outcome of their refusal to practice the mitzvah of hospitality or charity.  So the story of Sodom and Gomorrah are stories about how we are to welcome the stranger, or practice charity, and not about homosexuality, but that doesn’t really solve the issue for us.

There are five passages in all of scripture that deal with homosexual activities, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and those that reference them, are not included in that five.  Of those five passages, in the Hebrew Scriptures, only references to men are included, so if we are to look only at these, then lesbian behavior would be accepted.  Paul corrects that oversight in his lists of sins, which also include many things, like gossip, that most of us are probably guilt of.  So then the question we have to ask is what parts of the Bible were true for that time, but no longer apply, and which are true for all time.  I know some will say that all scripture is true for all time, but that is simply not the way that anyone approaches the Bible regardless of how liberal or conservative you are.  Let me give you the easiest example.  Slavery is discussed in scripture 326 times, and in all but two of those times they accept or support slavery, I can even tell you how to make yourself a slave to someone else if you are interested. The two passages that could be used in opposition to slavery are the apostle Paul telling slave owners to treat their slaves kindly and if they are Christian to see them as their brother in Christ, not exactly ringing anti-slavery tracts.

The fact is, the Bible’s position on slavery is much clearer and much more discussed then homosexuality, and yet we don’t see things that way anymore.  We simply approach the issue slavery very differently today and interpret the Bible very differently than it has been in the past. In fact as Methodists we have a strong connection to the anti-slavery movement because John Wesley was the first theologian of any significance to come out in opposition to slavery, and not because as some would say that the ancients practiced a nicer kindler form of slavery than the Americans did because they didn’t.  John Wesley said that he was a man of the book, and it served as the primary basis for everything he did and thought, but  he was able to come to the decision he did on slavery because he but he said to properly be a person of the book that we must look at what scripture says, then look at what tradition says, then look at what our experience says, and what our reason says, and combine those to come to our understanding.  And because of that he came out in opposition to slavery.

It wasn’t very long ago that slavery was justified by scripture, and those in opposition to slavery were not true Christians or didn’t take scripture seriously enough, just as it wasn’t too long ago that people justified racism, or keeping the races separately because of scriptural witness.  But you would be very hard pressed to hear anyone making those same arguments today.  Those passages are still in the Bible, it’s just simply different, and so we have to ask what is true for all time and what is true for only then, and we do this all the time even in the injunctions against homosexual behavior.  So for example, Leviticus 20:13 says “If a man lied with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination,” that, along with Leviticus 18:22, are the ones most commonly quoted, and said that scripture is clear on this, that this is a universal truth that is for all time, but what does the next line say, this is the one we tend to ignore, and that is that those who commit these acts “shall be put to death.”  Even amongst the most conservative in this country most are not calling for the death penalty for those caught in homosexual acts.  Why?  Because we’ve sort of said that part doesn’t apply anymore.

And lest you think that this was the only thing that was punishable by death, here are a couple of others that we not only call for death about but that we disregard altogether.  When is the Sabbath?  No, it’s actually on Saturday, and even the church recognizes this, and what is the punishment for doing any work on the Sabbath?  Death.  What is the penalty for adultery?  Death.  And that includes if you get married again after being divorced, because then according to scripture, you have committed adultery.  What is the penalty for a child striking or even disobeying their parents?  Death.  What is the penalty for having sex with a woman who is menstruating, or even uncovering her nakedness?  Death.  What is a priest supposed to do if his daughter becomes a prostitute?  He is supposed to burn her to death.  And here are some things that are also an abomination in the eyes of God, eating pork, getting a tattoo, sowing your fields with more than one seed, wearing clothing of two types of fibers, bearing false witness, a woman wearing men’s clothing or a man wearing women’s clothing, using incense, cutting your beard or rounding off your hair.  But I never hear anyone railing against these as sins or abominations

Now my purpose here is not to tell you you are wrong if you think that homosexuality is a sin or even to try and convince you otherwise, because I don’t think I can do that, nor do I even have the time to begin to delve into this issue fully.  Instead I simply hope that I have given you a different perspective to push you beyond your comfort zone a little bit, not that I don’t think you can’t change your perspective, because I was raised with the conservative position, and that’s what I believed for a long time.  But my opinion changed, because then I got to know gays and lesbians and this is true for most of the younger generations.  When you were growing up most of you probably never knew someone who was gay or lesbian, but that is simply not true anymore.  Actually it was never true, you just didn’t know their sexuality.  But once I knew people who were gay or lesbian, and I liked them, and knew that some of them were great Christians, some of them are even excellent ministers for whom I can see the Holy Spirit working in their lives, and so I had to reevaluate my prior position, and I had to look at scripture with different eyes.  Rather than scripture reinforcing my biases, and my biases reinforcing scripture in sort of a repetitive catch 22 cycle, I had to stop and reevaluate what scripture said, and I came to a different conclusion than what I had thought before.

There is room for Christians to see and interpret this issue differently, and to still take scripture seriously, to still be people of the book, to still be Christians and to still love each other. This is not the black and white issue that people want to make it out to be, and I can even make room in my theology to say that I could be wrong, and so I ask the same of you.  What if we are wrong on this issue?  But if I am wrong when I come to meet God face to face, I think I’ll be okay, or at least I’ll have a very good excuse, because I believe that as long as I am preaching a gospel of love rather than of hate, of inclusion rather than exclusion, of peace and mercy and forgiveness, then God will forgive me as well, even where I have failed.

Heterosexuality is normative, but that does not mean it is the only expression of sexuality.  I don’t think that homosexuals choose their orientation, any more than we may have chosen to be heterosexual.  I believe it is something that happens naturally.  Homosexuality has now been identified in more than 2000 species of animals and counting, including every species of mammals.  Alfred Kinsey said that he thought 10% of the population was homosexual.  I think that number is too high, and subscribe more to the European scientific consensus which says that it’s around 5%.  But for every one of those 5% they have parents and family and friends, and so the number of people who know or love someone who is gay or lesbian is large.  I suspect that even some of you here are in that situation, although you may be hesitant to admit it to someone.  But here is something that might be even more shocking to you and that is that there are gays and lesbians in this town.  I have met them.  I don’t know anyone who is open about it, but they are here, living amongst us and sooner or later, someone in this town is going to come out.  It’s not a matter of if; it’s simply a matter of when.

It might be a teenager, it might be an adult.  But when it happens it is more than likely going to be someone we all know and care about, it might even be a member of your family.  And all that I am asking is this.  If you ignore everything else I have said, if you disagree with everything else I have said, I just ask this of you.  When that happens, it is going to be incredibly difficult and tough for them.  They are going to have friends and family who will turn against them, turn on them, and probably even shun them.  I can only guess what the other two faith communities will do and say, and I hope that I am wrong in what I think they will do, but I pray and plead and beg you to do what I believe is the Christian thing and simply go to them and tell them that you love them, you are proud of them and that God loves them.  You don’t have to approve of their “lifestyle”, but what they need more than anything is to be told that they are loved and that they are treasured and valuable human beings.  They need to be told that they are a beloved son or daughter of God, and that there is nothing which can separate us from God’s love, and that they will always be welcomed with warm arms into this body of Christ.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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