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Message Nine, 1-24-10

By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.

According to Lynn Lavner, a lesbian social commentator, “The Bible contains six warnings to homosexuals and 362 warnings to heterosexuals.  This does NOT mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals.  It just means that God thinks they need more supervision!”

Over the last two weeks, I’ve tried to take us on a journey to see a few contemporary political issues in a spiritual light.  We discussed two weeks ago how basic and affordable healthcare is a universal and God-given human right. And the same is true, as we saw last Sunday, with Martin Luther King and his effort to promote equality and non-violence.  He was first and foremost a spiritual leader and a man who called all of us – white and black – to our better selves.  The Divine heart, according to King, is for peace, justice and the equality of all persons.

And, to the surprise of nobody here I am sure, I believe the same holds true for the current effort to win civil,             social,             religious and             political rights for gays, lesbians, transgendered and questioning persons.  While all forms of intolerance and bigotry remain, it is said that the current struggle for GLBT rights in America is the last battle for human equality.  Once again, we embark not just on a political effort to secure justice, we commit ourselves to a righteous cause – to the foundational truth that all humans are worthy, all people are to be loved and all persons must be given the same rights no matter whom they choose to love.

Just as African-Americans and their advocates had to first argue against pernicious verses in the Bible which support slavery, so too do gay and lesbian Americans have to propose alternative interpretations of Biblical verses which have been used to wage a war against homosexuals.

I believe that the use of a few verses in the Bible to attack homosexuality ignores the consistent theme and message of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. That consistent theme is quite simple: God is solely and singularly focused on the well-being of those whom God created – man and woman.  The Divine heart is to advance the human condition.  And, if there is a moral command from the Jewish and Christian God in terms of how we should ACT, it is to simply follow two ethics: love the Divine with all of one’s being and, second, love other humans as much as one loves himself or herself.  This variation of the Golden Rule is found in most world religions and it was echoed by Jesus as the two greatest and most important commands of God.  All other Biblical verses, he said, are derived from and dependant on them.

Love the Divine and love one another.  That is the message of the Bible according to Jesus.  There is no other spiritual or moral ideal that I believe is higher or more important.

But of course, that is not how many people wish to argue this debate.  Ignoring the above two commands, many point to much less important verses in the Bible as they seek to advance their own unique view of how humans should live.  Indeed, in the four gospels which comprise the foundation and essence of all Christian thinking –             Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – there is NOT ONE verse or one command from Jesus which speaks of or condemns homosexuality.

The Jesus for whom millions say they follow and accept as the only way to understand God and Truth, NEVER said one word about this issue.  If it were so important, I ask you, would he not have said something?

For our sake here today, I want to briefly review three of the verses in other parts of the Bible that appear to condemn gays and lesbians:

  • Many have used the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to declare God’s hatred for homosexuality.  I believe such a use of this story is falsely applied and misinterpreted.  The story describes how a gang of men from Sodom clamor to attack and rape three male guests in Lot’s home.  Lot strangely seeks to appease them by offering his daughters to the mob instead of his three guests.  And, we learn, God soon decides to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness but saves Lot and his family.
    • How can a story that describes a near riot and a desire to gang rape others be seen as anger toward homosexuals?  Indeed, shouldn’t one’s anger be directed at the idea of attacking and raping others – no matter the gender? Furthermore, Lot’s offer of his daughters to the mob is nowhere condemned as troubling.  While he wished to protect his guests, is the alternate sacrifice of others – especially close family members – somehow more moral?
    • The Bible later gives us an answer to what should be the interpretation of why God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah.  It was NOT because of homosexuality.  In the book of Ezekiel, and I use the New International translation, God states: ‘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.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.’ The ethic of the Sodom story, then, is very simple.  God condemns those who are arrogant, selfish and unconcerned for the poor and weak.  What does that have to do with gays and lesbians?
  • Other opponents of homosexuality employ the verse in the Biblical book of Leviticus, which declares that a man who lies with another man is an abomination.  Since this verse also appears in Jewish scriptures, many Jewish scholars contend that the word ‘abomination’ is mis-translated.  In other parts of the Bible, the Hebrew word translated as ‘abomination’ is instead translated as a forbidden cultic practice involving the worship of idols.  The message in the book of Leviticus, therefore, is that God condemns idolatryNOT homosexuality.  Idolatry is something which God forbids in the Ten Commandments and which we can understand today as loving anything MORE than we love the Divine moral imagination.
    • Additionally, this verse in Leviticus is surrounded by other commands from God forbidding people to eat shellfish like shrimp or crabs,             forbidding people to eat pork, forbidding the wearing of clothing made from two different materials,             forbidding men from cutting their sideburns or beards and             forbidding women in the middle of their monthly cycle from living in the midst of the rest of a community.  Such women are said to be unclean and must not live with others during their period.
    • Later verses in Leviticus clearly allow for and promote slavery.  It says: Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.
    • The point to take from this is that all of these verses and commands were written thousands of years ago, in an ancient culture, based on pre-scientific knowledge, NONE of which we follow today.  Virtually no Christian – fundamentalist or progressive –  follows them either.  If the Leviticus verses are ancient prohibitions against homosexuality, why, my friends, are we asked to listen and accept only one of these outdated commands?

The third and final verse which I will look at today, out of a total of six in the entire Bible, is the one used most frequently from the New Testament or Christian scriptures. 

  • In the book of Romans, written by Paul to the new churches in Rome, it says – and I again use the New International Version:  Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.
  • Many scholars once again see these verses as pertaining solely to cultic practices like worshipping idols instead of God.  The people whom Paul condemns worship, as he says in these verses, created things – idols.  This was a common practice in Roman religion – to use Temple prostitutes and images of their many gods in worship.  An interpretation of this verse, for us today, is the same as what I indicated for the Leviticus verses – we must not love anything more then we respect and honor the Holy moral force at work in our world.  When we love things or money more than we love the goodness found in people, we have turned away from the Divine heart to be concerned about the well-being of others.
  • Many who use these verses in the book of Romans to condemn homosexuality also take them out of context.  Immediately surrounding the verses I just read to you are verses which condemn in strong language greed,             envy,             anger,             fighting,             lying,             arrogance,             gossip, disobedience and             boasting.  Such vices, Paul says, are just as wrong as the same-sex behaviors he mentions.  It surprises me, therefore, that opponents of gay rights use the verses in Romans which supposedly show God’s anger towards homosexuality, but they totally ignore the other verses which show God’s anger with behaviors committed by virtually everyone.

What then, does the Bible say about how we are to treat each other? There are hundreds to choose from.  Using the NIV Bible translation once again, I will quote just a few verses from the New International Translation:

  • Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
  • Live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers and sisters, be compassionate and humble.
  • Another verse says: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers and sisters. Anyone who does not love remains in death.”
  • Also:            “Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”
  • A final verse to consider: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar.”

And what do other world religions say about homosexuality?  Within Judaism there is a range of thinking.  Orthodox Jews condemn GLBT relationships much like fundamentalist Christians do.  Conservative Judaism, distinct from the Orthodox, is often open and accepting.  Gay or lesbian rabbis are acceptable as is same-sex marriage.

Reform Judaism is strikingly similar to Progressive Christianity in its approach.  Gays and lesbians are welcomed and celebrated.  They believe same-sex attraction is innate, much like being right or left handed.  And, Reform Jews actively support any lifestyle which promotes loving, committed and stable relationships.  They maintain that homosexual orientation was not understood when the Bible was written. Much like other beliefs which have evolved from Biblical times – like attitudes towards slavery and attitudes toward women – thinking about same-sex love must conform to contemporary knowledge.

Most Buddhists, those of Theravada thinking, believe that all relationships – heterosexual and homosexual – are personal matters of mutual consent.  If a relationship promotes the happiness of both individuals, it is positive and acceptable. And, like Reform Jews, most Buddhists believe that homosexuality is beyond the control of the individual – like race and gender.  To discriminate or deny one’s humanity based on such uncontrollable factors is wrong.  While many Buddhists live in cultures that have historically been biased against homosexuals, there is NOTHING in the teachings of Buddha which condemns same sex romance.

Hinduism, as a religion, has been the most tolerant toward homosexuality.  Writings and depictions of same sex love are found throughout its history.  Any expression of love and devotion towards another is good. In Hindu religious writings and narratives, gods frequently change gender and often involve themselves in same sex relationships.  Creation is unlimited in its diversity, according to Hindu thinking, and thus men and women of the so-called third sex – those who love others of the same sex – are to be respected and given a semi-divine status.

Sadly, in many Hindu cultures, particularly in India, homosexuality is NOT widely accepted.  Once again, cultural traditions have usurped the ethic of the Hindu religion and many gays and lesbians are routinely harassed or forced to remain hidden and closeted.

The extent of discrimination in the United States, however, is widespread.  While many see gays and lesbians enjoying many of the same rights as everyone else, there are many rights which they do not enjoy.  The image persists that most gays and lesbians are well off, well educated, enjoy a carefree lifestyle and are free of the responsibilities of family and child rearing.  This is a superficial image.  While there are many GLBT persons who are happy and thriving, too many live with depression, loneliness, and substance abuse all due to the fact that the prevailing culture denies them their basic God-given rights.  Suicide rates for gay teenagers are eight times that of heterosexual or non-questioning teenagers.  Alcoholism and drug addictions are estimated at 30% of the total GLBT population.  Depression, shame, internal homophobia and reaction to harassment are the primary causes.

Many gays and lesbians have families and children.  For those who do not, they deeply wish they could.  Biological parenting is an option for many through surrogacy and adoption.  Cruelly, however, many states and many adoption agencies deny gays and lesbians the right to adopt.

Just how are gays, lesbians and transgendered people discriminated against in our nation?  Here are just a few ways:

  • They lack the automatic legal right to make medical decisions for a partner;
  • The right to petition for immigration and citizenship for a partner does not exist as it does in heterosexual marriages;
  • The automatic right to share or inherit property in the event of a break-up or death does not exist as it does for heterosexual marriages;
  • Gays and Lesbians have no right to social security benefits from a partner,           no Medicaid benefits,           no income or estate tax benefits,           no veteran’s benefits,           and no disability benefits – all due to the Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by Bill Clinton;
  • They do not enjoy continuing health insurance when a partner loses a job – as do heterosexuals;
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows 12 weeks of leave in the case of serious illness for spouses, children and parents – but not for a same sex partner or partner’s parents.
  • Each of the above are legal rights denied to the GLBT community.  But, what about the more subtle ways they are discriminated against?           – Like the ability to appropriately express affection in public – gays and lesbians often avoid holding hands in public – something others take for granted;                     or the ability to display a picture of a partner at work;           the fear of appearing too feminine or too masculine;           the fear of simply being who you are in a world where taunts and jeers against gays and lesbians occur regularly in schools, neighborhoods and churches.

I believe that the moral imagination in our world demands that all people be treated with equality.  I believe that spirituality and Divine morality DEMANDS that all people have the right to love whom they wish.  As the writer Gore Vidal expressed, it should not matter whom we love but whether we love at ALL!

And Coretta Scott King said, just before her death, “Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.”

In our tribute to Martin Luther King last Sunday, we were reminded of his untimely death and how the cruel sword of hatred exacted its revenge and took from us a great man.  Too often in our history, hatred and intolerance has also killed or persecuted gays or lesbians or transgendered persons simply because they were an affront to someone else’s distorted and unloving attitudes.

One such individual was Matthew Shepard who died a martyr’s death on October 12th, 1998.  Because he was gay, Matthew was lured from the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming by two men.  Matthew was a slight man of only 21 years.  He was five feet two inches tall and weighed only 105 pounds.  Blue eyed and with blond hair, he was not traditionally masculine in demeanor and was considered by his two attackers to be effeminate.  Driven by them to a remote area outside of town, Matthew was tied with his own shoelaces to a split-rail fence.  He was then taunted and beaten so severely over the head with the butt of a rifle, his skull was fractured and split open from his forehead to his right ear.  And then he was simply left in the below freezing temperatures, still tied to the fence, to die.  He was found in a coma 18 hours later, his face covered with blood except for where his tears had washed it away.  He died five days later.

Matthew was later figuratively attacked once again when, at his memorial service, a crowd of Christian fundamentalists taunted his family and hundreds of mourners with signs saying “Matthew rots in hell” and “God hates fags”.  In a final insult, this same religious group petitioned the Wyoming government to place a five foot tall granite stone in Laramie with the inscription reading, and I quote, “MATTHEW SHEPARD, Entered Hell October 12, 1998, in Defiance of God’s Warning: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.’

My dear friends, Matthew is NOT in hell.  I know this as surely as I know anything in this life of mine.  The cause for gay, lesbian, transgender and questioning rights in our nation is a Holy and Divine endeavor. With every fiber of my being I believe that far from condemning gays and lesbians, God loves and celebrates them.   Gays, lesbians and the transgendered are fellow humans beautifully and wonderfully created in the image of the Divine.  We laugh, cry, ache and yearn for the same things as everyone else.  We seek to love and be loved.  We too rest in the embrace of the Divine One who loves us all.                        It is a spiritual imperative – indeed it is a spiritual command – that we spread the ideal of moral imagination and love for every human being.  Let us embark on the same holy crusade of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King to be people of peace, love and compassion for all of creation’s children.