July 19, 2020

For Everyone Born - A Place at the Table

Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Judges 19:22; Romans 1:26-28; 1 Timothy 1:9-11


We continue our summer series on topics from the congregation. One of you asked how an LGTBQ person’s life can be right, based upon scripture. I am challenged and blessed to be able to preach upon such a subject, especially being the pastor of an open and inclusive congregation, as voted upon back in 2008.

I begin, however, not with today’s passage, but rather with the subject of women in the church, for in my mind these 2 topics are related scripturally. I heard my first female preacher when I was about 15. I knew what Paul said regarding women at the time- (See-1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, 1 Timothy 2:8-15.) Women should remain silent. Women should not teach, must listen to their husbands and keep their heads covered in worship. Yet, I had experienced women as C.E. directors and Sunday school teachers but had not seen them serving as ministers. (This was about 1976). However, that view was challenged when I heard a woman preach and really inspire me. Somehow I had to jibe God’s word with what I had just experienced through the power of the Holy Spirit. If scripture said those things about women, and yet I was inspired by this woman’s teaching, how could both things be true? And so I began to study passages regarding women, using the historical-critical method of study - that is, seeing those passages within their historical context to better understand them.

Women had no standing in the first century, they were unable to receive any formal education. Paul’s writings were reflective of the time in which they were written. In contrast, at almost the same time Paul wrote what he did, women were becoming leaders in the church- house churches were founded and led by women such as Priscilla (Ephesians 4:11). There is also a female apostle named Paul-Junia (see Romans 16:7). Despite his own teachings, Paul seemingly contradicted them.

In my own personal experience, EVERY single Sunday school teacher I had was female and taught me the foundational principles of Christ - of his love and works and teachings. My Christian Education director at Vallejo 1st Presbyterian church, Suellen Stewart, was foundational for me in growing my faith. Women have ministered to me in many ways over the decades of my faith, and for that and their call to work in ministry I am forever grateful.

So - either I had to follow every word of scripture regarding women, EVERY word and follow it- which includes: being able to divorce a woman for anything seen as distasteful to the husband, women covering their heads in worship, and no woman teaching, EVEN in Sunday School; or I needed to look at the intent of the passage, the background to find its FULL meaning, and balance it with my own experiences as empowered by the Spirit. 

It is also important to read the whole of scripture so that we might find balance and wisdom from God. For example, I consider this passage in scripture - Galatians 3:26-28- “We are all sons and daughters of God, for all of us have been clothed in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” And Acts 2:17 tells us that our sons AND daughters shall prophesy. So despite what scripture teaches on the role of women, and the mandates from Paul on being silent and not teaching, I have no doubt they should be ministers of word and sacrament and make wonderful leaders in the church, based upon scripture AND my experiences with the Spirit of God as women have led me.

In most denominations today, women are fully included in the life and ministry of the church, as it should be. So, if we Presbyterians go against a number of teachings regarding women, perhaps there are other passages of scripture we can question, balance in light of their historical context and our own experience? Yes, there are. Consider scripture tells us not to wear two kinds of cloth woven together (Deut. 22:11), to refrain from eating shellfish for that is an abomination to God (Lev. 11:9-10), that divorce and remarriage causes both remarried people to commit adultery (Mark 10:11-12), and that a child can be stoned to death for talking back to one’s parents (Deut. 21:18-21). These are all from scripture, yet I doubt we follow them or consider them to be important teachings today, and therefore no longer apply them to our lives. Or, perhaps you believe that every Red Lobster restaurant is an abomination? Well then, no yummy cheddar biscuits for you…

What about the passages John read today? Those in the Hebrew Scriptures must be interpreted in light of the historical setting, in order to fully understand them and see if they apply to today.  When looking at Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, from a historical perspective, these 2 passages are dealing with the waste of the male seed. For you see at that time, males in Hebrew culture were seen as the main part of creating a child. The woman’s role was secondary, which we know of course is absurd today. Thus the passages in Leviticus are not directed not against same-sex relationships, but the waste of male semen.

The Judges 19:22 passage, which has a parallel story in Genesis 19 has to do with a practice among victorious armies of the day- Those who were defeated were sodomized by the conquering armies as a sign of humiliation and dominance. “The sin remains primarily one of inhospitality.” From Church and the Homosexual, by McNeill. These passages referring to the injustice of males raping males, not to LGTBQ couples today.

What about the passages in the New Testament? The historical situation of Greco-Roman society during the time of Paul’s writings was not a pretty one. There was an accepted practice of Pederasty- male teenage boys, often captured as slaves and who were taken in by older males and forced into sexual relationships. They were also given military and scholastic education in these unjust pedophiliac relationships. Plato wrote of this relationship, saying, “The noble sort (of this kind of relationship) is interested primarily in educating youth and proof of this is precisely that the adult chooses a male youth rather than a girl since the male has the more robust nature and the larger share of the mind.” In Sparta, pederasty was closely linked with military training and service. The ideal was for a youth to have an adult to train him in military prowess as well as matters of sex. In battle, they fought side by side. Bible historian and author Robin Scroggs says the following about the passage in Romans. Romans 1:26-27 - “The point of the passage is not to stigmatize sexual behavior of any sort but to condemn the Gentiles for their general infidelity, and to argue that the societal norms of pederasty are not what God has intended. What Paul seems to derogate are homosexual acts committed apparently by heterosexual persons.”  Scroggs, The New Testament & Homosexuality

I found a compelling argument regarding the passage in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 in the book, The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage, by Mark Achtemeier (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).  Achtemeier’s conclusions regarding the passage have to do with placing this passage in its historical context. “The author is using the list as a representative sampling of what he is confident his audience already regards as terrible behaviors. The grouping of the Greek word, arsenokoitais with the terms on either side of it may be significant. The Greek word pornois, which NRSV translates ‘fornicators’ can also refer to male prostitutes. This being the case, the three terms, ‘fornicator,’ ‘sodomites’, and ‘slave traders’ may constitute a collective reference to the sex trade that developed in the Roman Empire, using young boys who were captured and subsequently castrated by the military in conquered territories. What the NRSV translates as fornicators, sodomites, and slave traders may in fact refer to the customers, victims, and profiteers who were involved in these horrible human trafficking operations.” So, placing this text in its historical context does not address the issues of gay marriage today, or of just, loving relationships in the LGTBQ community.

My conclusion: Based on historical records of the time, the homosexual acts in the old testament are seen as a waste of procreation or unjust practices. Those which Paul argued about in the New Testament between males regarded pederasty, was unequal, unjust, impermanent, and humiliating.

Now, regarding experience - As I mentioned when I was 15 and experienced my first woman preaching, and that experience informs my faith. I believe the Holy Spirit didn’t stop inspiring us once the Bible was compiled in the 4th century. The Spirit blows where she wills to this day. Furthermore, although Scripture is where I begin, it must be studied in its proper historical context to apply to my faith. After dealing with the scripture passages for today, what has my experience with the LGTBQ community taught my faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit?

I remember when I attended seminary, first meeting gay and lesbian students who were also seeking to work in the PCUSA. At first, I admit to being less than supportive of their desire to serve as ordained clergy. Back in the early 1990s if you were out, you could join a church, but you could not serve as an elder, deacon, or as a minister. At the time, I trusted in the church’s constitution and laws. Then I met one woman who was in my first year peaching class, who was a dynamic preacher, who had more gifts than I did for ministry, and whom I became friends with. Here was an outstanding candidate for ministry, who felt an authentic call to serve, who from as far back as she could remember knew who she was and never made a “choice” about her sexuality, but could not serve in the denomination I grew up in and loved. What a loss, and what an injustice. Upon graduating, she was welcomed warmly by the United Church of Christ.

A few years later, the denomination agreed to let people in the LGTBQ community serve as elders and deacons, but still not be married and still not be ordained as ministers. I was at a presbytery meeting at the time, in Redwoods Presbytery. A candidate for ministry came to the meeting and blew ALL of us away as she read her statement of faith. What depth! What knowledge! What faith! She was then introduced by the Committee on Preparation as an open Lesbian to the presbytery. Yet because of her faith and calling to serve as a minister, the CPM felt she should be brought forward. After an hour of questioning, the vote came through, and she was denied ordination. Rules were rules…What an unjust verdict, and what a loss for our denomination. This rule did not change in the church until just a few years ago.

Another experience, which has been repeated a few times in my office at churches I have served over the decades - someone comes into my office, tells me they are faithful Christian people looking for a church to become a part of, tells me they are gay or lesbian, and asks if they would be welcomed by the church. In those churches at the time, I would respond by telling them that I and others would happily welcome them into the life of the church, but they would also meet resistance. These conversations have happened to me at least 4 times, and at the end of each conversation, I have felt injustice for these people seeking a spiritual place to call home and saw their shoulders slump as I revealed the deep prejudice still in the churches I served.

Finally, I have a nephew in my family who is gay. I love him dearly and have known this about him since he was around the age of 5. He did not “choose” to be gay. He was made in the image of God as he was, as he is today. Despite growing up in a very conservative and traditional household, Taylor did not fit into that mold. His mother accepted him and loves him, while his father rejects him to this day. The church he grew up in rejected him as well and the faith he had in a loving God has been damaged as a result. Again, what injustice, done on behalf of God.

If we cannot apply the passages read today to LGTBQ inclusion and being an inclusive congregation, are there ones that CAN be guiding principles for us? Yes. There are at least 3. First, Micah 6: 8. “God has shown you, O mortal what is good. And what does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”  In the New Testament, when a scribe asked Jesus to sum up the whole of scripture, asking which of all commandments are the greatest, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind and with all of your strength. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) Third, there is the well-known passage when Jesus responded about the question of Gay and Lesbian persons back then, which says…NOTHING. Jesus was silent on this issue.

Friends, for centuries, the institutionalized church has unjustly condemned people made in the image of God, has barred them from being able to worship in a community, has forbidden them to be leaders, and denied their authentic calls from God to serve. We have much work to do - to apologize for unjust behavior, to seek reconciliation and repair damage done, and to welcome with open arms those of the LGTBQ community. We are called to love and serve humbly, so that, one day the words to the hymn we are about to sing can be true. For everyone born, a place at the table. Until then, we have much work to do. Alleluia. Amen.

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