"Pastor, you must have guts if you preached that sermon."
"Wow. Your sermon really touched me."
"Can you believe she preached that?"
"I have never heard a preacher address the issues that really matter to me."
"Thank you for preaching this sermon today."
I have received more comments on last week's sermon than I have ever received before. We are in the middle of a sermon series called, "Why Does the Bible Include That?" Last week's sermon was on marriage, divorce and homosexuality. It is a sermon that made me struggle, learn a lot, and be blessed tremendously. It is a long sermon. Still, the comments I have received have motivated me to post it here:
I was recruiting students for Duke Divinity School at one of our United Methodist colleges in the South when I first met Michael. The chaplain had gathered a group of six students who were interested in learning more about Duke, and Michael was one of the students eager to learn. I can still visualize that first meeting, picturing the different students and the chaplain who sat around the table. All of them told me that Michael would be a bishop in our church one day. Michael had already been elected to two General Conferences, the legislative body of our church that meets every four years. He was a regular preacher, filling the pulpits of churches around the state. Some people had even labeled him a church politician already. Michael had a plan. He was on his way to becoming a leader in our church.
Two years later, I got to welcome Michael as a member of the entering class at Duke. He arrived on campus, excited to finally be in seminary – to finally be studying the things he loved – scripture, theology, church history, and Methodist doctrine. As expected, Michael quickly became involved in everything the seminary had to offer. He offered his beautiful voice to the chapel choir. He provided leadership in the student government. He sat outside on the steps, using his personality to lighten the load of other students. Michael had so many gifts. He could teach. He could preach. He could listen. He could laugh. “He is going to be an amazing pastor,” we all thought to ourselves.
Michael and I spoke often during his fall semester, developing a solid friendship. And just as I will never forget the first time I met him, I will also never forget the details of a conversation we shared in the spring semester of his first year. I was working late when Michael came in and said, “Do you have a few minutes?” He closed the door, sat down, and began to share what was happening in his classes at school. The conversation on school soon turned much more complicated and complex as Michael shared with me how hard it was to be at Duke, knowing that he would never be able to fully respond to God’s claim on his life.
“I will never be able to be a pastor, Donna. I’m gay,” he said. “I have given my entire life to the church. I have followed Jesus to the best of my ability. I have prayed for years that God would take away my feelings for other men. Still, here I am, unable to deny something that is at the core of my being, knowing that I will never be able to be the pastor God has called me to be – at least not in our denomination.”
It did not take long for tears to start rolling down both of our eyes. The tears soon turned to reservoirs of water that did not appear to be running dry anytime soon. Michael cried because he was afraid – afraid to tell his parents who he really was, afraid to tell his classmates, and afraid to tell his church. His parents, his classmates, and his church all expected him to be a bishop one day, while Michael was coming to grips with how he would likely never be a pastor, let alone a bishop.
I cried because Michael was one of the students who I knew was going to make an impact within our church one day. I knew this from the moment I met him. And, I knew that our church was about to lose a remarkable individual who always seemed destined to serve.
Two scripture lessons have been read this morning. One of the passages mentions the topic of divorce. The other passage mentions the topic of homosexuality. One of the scriptures is quoted often. The other scripture is rarely mentioned. Neither of the passages appears in the lectionary, the schedule of scripture readings assigned for pastors to preach on throughout the years. And both of the passages make me uncomfortable. Both of the passages are easier to avoid than they are to preach.
In our text from Matthew, the Pharisees are in the process of trying to trick Jesus. They want Jesus to say something that will support their belief that a husband should be able to rule over his wife. Jesus responds to their test with a description of marriage. He tells the Pharisees how God created male and female, just as it is spelled out in the book of Genesis. The man and the woman become one flesh, says Jesus, offering assurance that the man and the woman are equal. One is not above the other. The Pharisees continue the conversation by reminding Jesus what is written in Deuteronomy. Chapter 24:1 reads, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.” When this happens, the woman leaves and becomes the wife of someone else in Deuteronomy. It is an easy way out. All that is needed is a certificate of divorce.
Jesus’ words do not provide an easy way out of marriage, however. Jesus restricts divorce to one situation. The only case for divorce, according to Jesus, is adultery.
The disciples react rather strangely. They seem to believe that it is easier to stay unmarried than it is to stay faithful to one woman because they ask, “’If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry?’” It apparently was quite common for men to be unfaithful in their marriages. Still, not everyone can remain single and celibate. Jesus knows that remaining celibate can be a challenge.
Jesus understands that keeping a marriage together can be very difficult. Jesus and his disciples are aware that sexuality is a complex, powerful, beautiful, and sometimes destructive gift. Sexuality is a gift in which passion can sometimes rule over us. Still, Jesus’ words in this passage seem rather strait-forward. The only reason for divorce is adultery. Jesus makes no mention of growing distant, financial stress, differences in childrearing, or any other reason as grounds for divorce. Marriage is an act of faithfulness and an act of discipleship. Marriage is a covenant created by God – one that God can keep together. The only situation in which a divorce should be granted is when one of the partners is unfaithful.
There are several passages of scripture that are used when people are debating the issue of homosexuality. Several people turn to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. However, a careful reading of this text will demonstrate how this story is the story of rape and inhospitality, not the story of consensual sexual relations. The behavior in this passage should be condemned! Rape should always be condemned whether the act is between two people of the same sex or two people of the opposite sex.
Other people point to the passages found in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” A similar passage appears in Leviticus 20:13. These passages are part of the holiness codes. And as one scholar explains, as United Methodists, we should resonate with Leviticus’ call to holiness, a call repeated by Jesus and John Wesley.” He goes on to explain, “Scripture, however, is clear that with Jesus’ advent, God’s holy order has changed.” The purity codes were set aside with the arrival of Christ. In fact, the laws concerning circumcision and dietary practices were almost all set aside in the first century. Leviticus, then, is not the best passage for Christians to turn to for wisdom on this topic – unless we want to give up eating shellfish, too.
The most relevant New Testament passage on the topic of homosexuality is the passage from Romans that was read today. Paul is writing to a church that he has never visited. He starts his letter by offering thanksgiving for the church in Rome. He builds them up, giving thanks and praise for their ministry. He then offers a word about salvation in Verse 16, assuring everyone in Rome that salvation is available to all. The Jew and the Gentile have been delivered from sin, death and evil.
Paul then talks about the state of much of humanity. While we have been delivered from our sin and evil, there are people who are living lives contrary to the goodness of God. Paul explains to the people in Rome how we all know what is right, and we all know God. Yet, we do not always make the right choices in light of our knowing God. We do not always honor God with the choices we make nor do we always give thanks to God. And when we are not honoring or giving thanks to God, we tend to exchange the authentic, God-given way of life for a life that is less than authentic.
Paul continues his letter with a description of what can happen when we are not honoring and giving thanks to God by giving four examples of the God-given thing being exchanged for another thing. The glory of God has been exchanged for images resembling ourselves in Verse 25. The truth of God has been exchanged for the worship of creature and not Creator in Verse 25. Women exchange natural intercourse for the unnatural in Verse 26. And men give up natural intercourse in exchange for passion for one another in Verse 27.
My professor of New Testament, Richard Hays, explains, “When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.”
Dr. Hays’ statement makes sense when you think of the ways in which the creation story is told, and when you examine our bodies. A man and a woman’s body are designed to go together. We are designed in such a way that we can become one flesh in an act of love.
Another scholar who I greatly respect explains the passage a little differently, saying Paul is not condemning all of humanity in this passage, but rather is condemning the idolatry of humanity. Paul is condemning anything that is done without first obeying and giving thanks to God. He goes on to write, “Paul is not condemning homosexual practice in general but homosexual practice that is an excess of desire and rooted in pagan idolatry.” This scholar believes that any relationship or act that is chosen before God is out of order. However, some relationships – including the relationship between gay men and lesbian women – can glorify God.
Here is where the argument takes off. Some people say that anyone who is homosexual is not putting God first, regardless of the widely held, and most accepted conclusion that homosexuality is not a choice. Other people say that it is the way in which the homosexual lifestyle is framed – it can be possible to put God number one, to give God all thanks and praise, and to still be a gay man or a lesbian woman.
The United Methodist Church first published a statement on homosexuality in 1972. In this year, the newly fashioned Social Principles included a statement that continues to be part of the Social Principles today. A section of our Book of Discipline titled, “Human Sexuality” begins with these words, “We recognize that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church and society. We call all persons to the disciplined, responsible, fulfillment of themselves, others, and society in the stewardship of this gift.” The Discipline continues with words on how sex outside of marriage is wrong, as is the exploitation of sex. And then this statement is made:
Homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons, are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human
fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
With this statement, our argument continues. In fact, one of the essays I read in preparation for this sermon was titled, “Will Homosexuality Split the Church?” It was written in 1999 – just before the 2000 General Conference. Homosexuality has already split the Episcopal Church in the United States. The issue of gays and lesbians as members of our churches’ lay and ordained ministry has been brought to the floor of our denomination’s General Conference every year. And, an argument will take place on the floor of the Baltimore Washington Conference in two weeks when legislation is presented that would remove the words, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” Churches in this conference are bringing forth legislation in hopes of changing the Book of Discipline at the 2008 General Conference.
One of the things that bothers me the most about most discussions on this issue is the mean spirited debate that is sparked almost anytime the issue is discussed. I have never heard such hateful, demeaning words used by church people than the words some so-called followers of Jesus use to describe gay men and lesbian women. I do not know of any group today that is more discriminated against in our society and in our church than gay men and lesbian women. I do not know of any other group in our society today that is more feared and more despised as a collective group. And I do not know of any other issue that elicits such a mean, judgmental, hypocritical spirit from people who call themselves followers of Christ.
We are so good at picking and choosing the parts of the Bible that apply to us, laying aside the rest of the Bible’s teaching. I specifically selected two passages today. One of the passages includes the words of Jesus himself. The other passage includes the words of Paul. While Jesus makes it clear that the only grounds acceptable for divorce is a partner who is unfaithful, we do not judge (and nor should we judge) individuals who are divorced today. Divorced people are allowed to not only join our churches without any questions asked, but divorced people are allowed to lead our churches as pastors and as laypeople. I do not believe that divorced people should be discriminated against. Divorce is an epidemic in my family. My parents are divorced. My sister is divorced. I know well the pain of divorce and believe that divorce is just as painful as death, especially when your parents have been married for 23 years and the only life you know is one in which Mom and Dad are both at home, still madly in love with each other. And while we should not discriminate against or judge divorced people, we should do whatever we can to make sure that marriages last a lifetime, praying for every married couple in our church and in our lives. We should continue to do whatever we can to make sure that the divorce rate decreases in this country.
But why are we so filled with acceptance of one group that Jesus actually says something about, while being filled with judgment when it comes to the gay and lesbian community? How can we let one scripture slide so easily while we shout out loud other scriptures on a topic that Jesus never once mentioned? How can we so easily allow men who have been unfaithful to their wives over and over again to lead our churches while not allowing two individuals who are in a committed relationship be part of our churches?
It amazes me that the very people who shout words like “fairy” or post signs that read “God hates faggots” are the very people who stand behind the Bible. But if we are going to stand behind this book, then we had better read all of it.
Paul’s words do not end with a passage on men exchanging natural intercourse with unnatural intercourse. Paul continues to write something for all of us. He writes, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” Paul is not talking about sex here. Rather, he writes, “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” I think we can all find an adjective here that applies to us. And if we cannot find one of these words, then we should turn the page of scripture one more time and start with the first verse of chapter 2, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
My professor, Dr. Hays, calls this passage a “homiletical sting operation.” He writes, “The radical move Paul makes is to proclaim that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, stand equally condemned under the just judgment of a righteous God. Consequently, for Paul, self-righteous judgment of homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself.” Did you hear that? Our judgment of homosexuality is just as sinful as homosexual behavior according to Paul.
Hays continues, “Thus, Paul’s warning should transform the terms of our contemporary debate about homosexuality: no one has a secure platform to stand upon in order to pronounce condemnation to others. Anyone who presumes to have such a vantage point is living in a dangerous fantasy, oblivious to the gospel that levels us before a holy God.”
Last week I was talking with one of my clergy colleagues. She was telling me how thankful she was to be a pastor. “It has been one of those weeks where I have given thanks and praise often for the gift of this call,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me about a conversation she had the day before.
The parents of one of her newer members were in town and had made an appointment to come and see her. They wanted to see this pastor in order to say “Thank you.” The parents have a twenty-something son who is a member of her church. This young man is gay, and he just told his parents about his sexual orientation two months ago. The young man was filled with pain when he told his parents. He knew he would disappoint them. He was afraid to tell them, but also could not stand the pain of living in a closet any longer. When he went home to finally tell his parents, he shared how it was his church in Washington that had provided him with the most support. In the church, he discovered the one community where he could truly be himself and be cherished for who he was. He found not a community of judgment but a community of open arms – a community that embodied the love of Christ to him.
The parents came to say thank you. They told my pastor friend how they could not imagine the pain their son had carried. They shared with her how they were a close-knit family and if the son was uncomfortable with telling his parents, then they could not imagine everything that he had been through. They continued to say how thankful they were that their son did not turn away from the church. “He could have gone the other way,” they told my pastor friend. “But you gave him a place where he could become more spiritually alive than he has ever been before.”
The more I get out into the downtown community, the more I learn about what other people think of our church. People often ask me about what is happening here before telling me about an experience they have had here. I was recently having a conversation with someone who shared with me, “I have watched your church for years. I have always been fascinated by your beautiful building. But the church has always seemed so closed. It never appeared to be open to me.”
I am not sure if this man was speaking of the gates that used to cover every single door to our church or if he was speaking of the kind of people he did or did not see walking in and out of our doors. However, his comment has made me think a lot.
When I read the stories of Jesus, I have a direct encounter with a savior who welcomes anyone and everyone. The Jesus I know and love was always spending time with the person on the outside – with the despised and condemned individual. Jesus touched people who no one else would touch. He ate with people who climbed trees in order to avoid the crowd. He met a woman at the well who was the scorn of society. He was constantly on the outside. Jesus does not turn a single person away, as far as the story is told. Jesus always erred on the side of inclusion and not exclusion, and Jesus calls us to be just like him. And when Jesus wanted to teach a lesson about judgment, he asked people to pick up and throw a stone at the woman caught in adultery – but the only person who could throw a stone was the person who was without sin. Not one person could throw a stone that day, and not one of us can throw a stone on this day, either.
I hope and pray that someone will never again say to me, “Your church seems so closed to me.” Rather, what I long for and what I pray is happening here is that people will say to me, “The thing I love about your church is how it looks like the body of Christ – how it is truly open to everyone.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, if you are divorced, you are welcome here. If you are a gay man or a lesbian woman, you are welcome here. If you are a sinner who feels like you have done everything wrong, you are welcome here. Welcome to the body of Christ. May we all encounter Jesus here – not only through a reading of the text – but through the grace of Christ which we have received and which we share with others as we all seek to do what Paul asks us to do – offer our best, our very best to God, and give God thanks.
 Matthew 19:10.
 Daniel M. Bell, Jr. “Will Homosexuality Split the Church?” in Questions for the Twenty-First Century Church, Edited by Russell E. Richey, William B. Lawrence and Dennis M. Campbell. Nashville, Abingdon, 1999, 276.
 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: HarperSanfrancisco, 1996, 386.
 Bell, 277.
 The United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2004, 101.
 Hays, 389.
 Hays, 389.