This is the sermon I delivered this morning at Highlands Presbyterian Church
regarding the matter of same-sex marriage.
When it comes to marriage, there are a lot of strange opinions. Gary Busey who may not be the best source on the topic, said, “Marriage is the only war where you sleep with the enemy.” Not surprisingly, Mae West is quoted as having said, “They say love is blind...and marriage is an institution. Well, I'm not ready for an institution for the blind just yet.”
Just as strange to me is the popular opinion of many Christians. We hear a lot of talk about what they call “traditional Biblical marriage” claiming that marriage was intended by God to be a life-long relationship between one man and one woman. One Christian web site makes this claim, “Traditional marriage has served all nations and all cultures well since the Garden of Eden!”
You don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to know that just ain’t true. The Bible rather provides support for polygamy, arranged marriage and other marital relationships for which you might go to jail these days.
Indeed as God set forth the law in the Book of Deuteronomy, God sanctioned marriages that included one man and more than one woman…envisioning the husband may like some and not others of his many wives. Deut 21:  "If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other disliked, and they have borne him children, both the loved and the disliked, and if the first-born son is hers that is disliked,  then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the first-born in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the first-born."
David whom God called a “man after his own heart” had countless wives, literally countless if you’ve ever tried. One was obtained though the killing of her first husband…and Solomon who is memorialized in the Bible as the wisest of all Kings had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.
Interestingly…traditional Biblical limitations and restrictions on marriage had nothing to do with the number of wives you corralled…it was about whether you married someone unacceptable to the community.
1st Kings 11: Now King Solomon loved many foreign women: the daughter of Pharaoh, and Moabite, Ammonite, E'domite, Sido'nian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods"; Solomon clung to these in love and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.”
The sin of Solomon was not that he married 700 women but that he married women from the other side of the tracks while David married within the community and so his heart was true. The Bible reflects a traditional attitude toward marriage…but not the one many conservative Christians would like to think it is. It was never “one man-one woman.”
That’s what Ezra is grappling with in today’s readings. The religious folks have read the scripture literally. They are pointing at the scripture! It says right there in the law that Israelites should not take foreign women in marriage…and now the devout must dump those women. Get rid of them, the sooner the better.
That’s nothing new. The religious community has forever struggled with who their sons and daughters should marry. I remember as a teen ager developing a crush on a local Jewish girl…whose parents put the kibosh on that real quick. I had friends who could not date certain kids because they were or were not Catholics or Mormons or whatever.
Their basis was again…the Bible that expressly teaches a Christian should never knowingly marry a non-Christian. The principle is set forth three times in the NT. 2 Corinthians 6:14, referred to in Ephesians 5:21–33 and Matthew 19:4–7. “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”
Good Christians also used the Bible to condemn marriages between people of different skin color. As a result, interracial marriage was banned in most states until as late as 1967 when the US Supreme Court ruled such laws a violation of the Constitution.
The court case involved a young couple coincidentally named Loving…one black, the other white who were sentenced to prison for marrying one another by a judge who said, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
You may find it interesting to learn the Presbyterian Church was among the first to come out against the ban on interracial marriage. A year before the Supreme Court ruled, the UPC took a stand, stating the church did not condemn or prohibit interracial marriages. The church found even in the face of scripture "no theological grounds for condemning or prohibiting marriage between consenting adults merely because of racial origin.”
These days, there are no more difficult issues to talk about in the life of the church than those involving the Christian response to gays, lesbians and transgendered people. But it is also true the church has always had difficult issues dividing it. Slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the role of women in the church and society, the acceptance of war. And it is likewise true the battleground on which these struggles have always taken place is the Bible.
I know you have heard it said scripture condemns homosexuals, declares them to be an abomination. Indeed there are parts of scripture, verses that when taken from the context of the entire story of God revealed through Jesus that can be interpreted to support that conclusion. But we worship God as revealed through Jesus and scripture is not always the final word…Jesus risked his life and was ultimately crucified because he rejected the literal words of the Bible in favor of loving those who the community vilified. The Gospel story calls us to do the same.
Luke Timothy Johnson is a conservative Christian writer who is often at odds with theologians I respect the most. He argues strongly with people like Daniel Berrigan and Marcus Borg. Listen to what this conservative Christian who has studied this matter far more deeply than most has to say about same sex marriage and scripture,
“Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists-and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society.”
That “similar position” he talks about is confronting the literal interpretation of scripture in order to support a change in beliefs. Just as Jesus had to confront literal interpretations of scripture in order to heal on the Sabbath, touch and heal lepers, share bread with sinners…so Christians have always had to confront literal reading of scripture to do what we have concluded God would have us do to allow love to prevail.
Those like Jefferson Davis who quoted the Bible to support slavery were not incorrect in their reading of the Holy Book. Davis was right when he said, "Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."
The Rev. Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples of Christ correctly observed, "There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral."
And yet, not a one of us Bible believing Christians believe slavery to have any moral basis in our vision of Christ. Why is that? Rev. Johnson explains it this way, “Christianity as actually practiced has never lived in precise accord with the Scriptures. War stands in tension with Jesus’ command of nonviolence, while divorce, even under another name (annulment), defies Jesus’ clear prohibition. And which Christians have ever observed the exhortation in Leviticus to stone psychics and put adulterers to death?’
The history of the church on the question of slavery is instructive. “How is it that now” Johnson asks, “in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong? The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience—through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.
“Many of us who stand for the full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists—and of the early advocates for women’s full and equal roles in church and society. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position, yet place our trust in the power of the living God to reveal as powerfully through personal experience and testimony as through written texts.
“To justify this trust, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.” END QUOTE
I apologize for including such a lengthy quote from another theologian in my sermon but it is important that I tell you it isn’t only us liberals who have taken the position that words written thousands of years ago, yet now appearing on the pages of the Bible, should no longer guide a Christian response to gays and lesbians wishing to live committed loving lives together in marriage.
For Jesus the question was always whether literal scriptural interpretation would prevail or would love prevail. I want to share with you a true but ghastly story of how the destructive results of allowing scripture to trump the love of Christ.
And so it makes more sense than not when a conservative, evangelical, devout believer like Luke Timothy Johnson is one of a growing number of Christians who find it no longer acceptable for Christians to ignore genetics and the ongoing revelations of God through life’s experiences…who have reached a prayerful and studied conclusion in their own faithful lives that the Bible can no longer serve as the basis for denying some human beings the opportunity to live in a loving, respectful, honest, God ordained marriage.
Side by side with Old Testament law about homosexuality is this verse from Deuteronomy 29: 29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.”
The revealed things include a new understanding of sexuality and what it is about the way God created us that determines sexuality and other personal traits, knowledge that was among what the scripture called “the secret things.” But that knowledge has now been revealed to us and the Bible says we cannot now ignore it.
To those who say, “Where do we draw the line?” I say no one is asked to sanction or tolerate sexual immorality. The sin is sexual relationship practiced irresponsibly, dishonestly and without recognition that God’s gift of sexuality is an important part of how God created us, a part of the diversity of God’s creation.
We live in a world where there are arranged marriages, temporary marriages, abusive marriages, marriages of convenience, marriages not expected to procreate, where single people can acquire their children through sperm donations as well as adoption…a world where living together has become as much a form of marriage as those celebrated in churches and licensed by the state…we live in a country where one child in three is born outside of marriage, a country where 30 percent of wives in those so-called traditional marriages are victims of domestic violence…
…we also live in a world where we understand more of how God used genes and DNA to create us, giving each our own characteristics including our sexuality. A world that knows so much more about how God created it cannot be bound by the mores and notions of an ancient culture to whom none of that was revealed.
AND we live in a world where we are asked to apply God’s grace to our relationships with others. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he unlike some of today’s preachers did not single out the one against homosexuality. Jesus was clear and quick to say it was to love, to love God and one another…he added…all of the law depends on these two. And so…I am left to conclude that where the Bible identifies homosexuality as a sin…it also makes clear we all sin and all fall short…and that God, not the church, certainly not the legislature…God is our judge…and Jesus would have us reject any interpretation of scripture that causes us to not love God or our brothers and sisters.
I join many of my brothers and sisters in Christ in saying to you…the deepest and most abiding responsibility and calling we have is to love one another. Using the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God to condemn others is at odds with the teachings of Jesus. To use select verses from the Bible to justify the oppression and marginalization of gays, lesbians and transgendered people is to deny the revelation of God through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a NY Times columnist, born in what she describes as, “the body of a boy and the spirit of a girl. If you know anything about transgendered persons, there are few experiences in life more wrenching than to come to grips with who God created you to be than to deal with changing one’s physical gender to comport with one’s spiritual gender. Jennifer went through that experience, condemned by many but not her loving Christian parents. She wrote about the day she told her mother and father. “When I finally came out to her as transgender, just after I turned 40, my conservative, religious mother put her arms around me, and said, without hesitation, “Love will prevail.”
“Love will prevail.” INDEED! Amen.