Sunday August 16, 2015
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
We’ve probably all been there. You’re at the family reunion, or the company picnic, or out to dinner with a new friend and the topic of marriage equality or Caitlyn Jenner comes up. Someone – a cousin, a friend, your boss – says, “Well, it’s not really for me to decide. God’s already decided. It’s very clear in the Bible. Homosexuality (or being transgender) is wrong.”
It’s always hard to know how to handle this, yes? Partially because we don’t want to get into it. Partially because we’re tired of arguing. But also – sometimes – because we aren’t as well-versed in what the Bible says as we’d like to be.
For the next two weeks, we are going to examine what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. This week, we’ll focus on the First Testament and next week we’ll check out the Second. Our final sermon in this three-week series will explore what the Bible has to say about gender identity.
So…let’s jump right in. I should note up front that most of what I’m sharing with you today I learned from this fabulous (and very short) book, The Children are Free by Jeff Miner and Tyler Connoley. Jonathan, can you please read the Genesis passage for us?
***Genesis 19:1-8 is read aloud.***
Ah, good ol’ Sodom and Gormorrah. It’s such a deeply disturbing passage…though not for many of the reasons we’ve been taught. For many, many years this story has been used to beat up on people who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual because it “clearly states” that homosexuality is a sin.
Except, of course. It doesn’t. Not really.
In this story, Abraham’s nephew, Lot moved to the big city of Sodom. God Almighty is mad at the people there and wants to destroy them so God sends incognito angels into the city on a recon mission to investigate.
Lot sees the two angels and greets them warmly, inviting them to his home for the night. This was common practice in the ancient near east – it was considered the norm to invite strangers into your home because there were no hotels and it was unsafe to sleep in the city square. The two man-angels come to Lot’s home and they settle in for the night. Suddenly, a mob of angry people is at the door. The author of Genesis notes that it is every single man in the city – young and old. Which is interesting because if this is supposed to be a story about homosexuality, it seems highly unlikely that EVERY male person in a large city would be gay, right?
The angry mob demands that the man-angels be sent outside so the crowd can “know them” which is Biblical code language for have sexual relations with them. Lot, being the fine upstanding gentleman that he is, refuses. Instead, he offers up his two virgin daughters to the angry crowd. My study Bible says that Lot’s solution was “less than exemplary.” I tend to think that’s a bit of an understatement. Offering your two daughters to an angry crowd so they can be raped is so disturbing, I’m not even sure what to call it except horrifying and evil. Through a twist of magic, just as the angry mob is about to break down the door, the man-angels intervene and no one is hurt.
It seems pretty clear to me that this scene at Lot’s door is not about sex or sexuality at all. It is about fear and what happens when people are caught up in mob mentality. Rape is not about sex. It’s about power, control, and humiliating another human being. That seems to be exactly what the mob wants. They are afraid of these strangers in their midst and they want to exert their authority by victimizing them.
Other Biblical authors seemed to understand this. Sodom is mentioned another 20 times in the Bible and no where – not once – is the “sin of Sodom” understood to be homosexuality. Instead, it’s that they were prosperous, inhospitable, full of pride, and haughty. They did not help those who were needy. They cared only for themselves. The sin of Sodom was violence rooted in fear and seeking to humiliate and control another. It has nothing to do with homosexuality at all.
Jonathan, can you please read the Leviticus passage for us?
****Leviticus 18:1-5, 22 is read aloud.****
Here is a passage where context means everything. Leviticus is, in general, a rulebook for living. As the Israelites were becoming a more solidified cultural group, they needed to be “set apart” from the other tribes and people around them. You can see this clearly in the beginning of the passage we just heard: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do in as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan.” And then we’re off into this giant list of all the things the Canaanites do that are bad news.
One of the things listed looks like it might be a condemnation of homosexuality. But homosexuality as we know it didn’t exist in Canaanite culture. This was a culture were gender norms were rigid. Women did certain things and men did others. Everyone had to be paired up with someone from the opposite gender for society to function properly. These people would have gone bonkers over Target re-doing their toy aisles! They would not have understood a consensual, mutual partnership between two people of the same gender.
Instead, what they are likely referring to here is related to sexual acts that happened as a part of religious ceremonies. The Canaanite people, like many others, used sex rituals as a part of their faith practices. We’re talking about sex rites, cultic temple prostitution, that kind of thing. I won’t go into details. But there were certainly men involved in sex rituals with other men and women with women. Those are the types of sexuality being condemned here, not homosexuality as we know it.
There is another very similar reference to these sex rituals in Leviticus 20:13. And that’s it. There are over 600,000 words in the First Testament, but that’s all the First Testament says that could potentially be construed as a condemnation of same-sex relationships. Let’s move on two examining two stories that have been interpreted as affirming same-sex love.
Jonathan, please read us that passage from Ruth.
****Ruth 1:1-9, 16-17 is read aloud.****
Again, context really matters. In order to understand the story of Ruth and Naomi, we have to understand the way families worked in the ancient near east. Women could not own property. They did not ever live alone or without men. They were generally considered the property and responsibility of their fathers until the married, at which time they became the property of their husbands. Side note: this is why I always scratch my head when I hear women living in the 21st century say they want us to have “Biblical marriage” now. No, thanks.
If a woman’s male protector died, she was extremely vulnerable. That’s why there are so many Biblical imperatives to care for the widows and the orphans. So when Orpah follows Naomi’s advice and decides to go back to her own people, she’s not being mean – she’s just being reasonable. The one who is wildly unreasonable is Ruth. Her decision to stay with Naomi makes no sense at all. Miner and Connolley say the only way we can understand her radical act is to know that it is motivated by love.
Those words that Ruth says to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you…where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and my God your God.” Those words have been read at heterosexual wedding ceremonies for centuries. They are words of devotion, spoken in love. They are vows of a lifelong commitment and covenant rooted in love.
Now you may be thinking, “Wait, doesn’t Ruth get married later?” Yes, she does. Interestingly, the Bible says nothing about her loving Boaz, her new husband. And Naomi and Ruth’s relationship remains central to the story. In fact, when Ruth gives birth to a son, the author describes the child as Naomi’s son. Now do we know if it was a sexual relationship? No, we don’t. Does it matter? Not really. What does matter, is that, clearly, these two women continued to live in a loving partnership, even after Boaz came on the scene.
And…speaking of that son born to Ruth and Naomi and Boaz. He was named Obed. He was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David. So…speaking of David….
So these are stories from David’s youth – back before he was King. And when he was a younger man, he had a complicated relationship with King Saul. Saul eventually died in battle and David was his successor. Along the time, David developed an intense relationship with Saul’s son, Jonathan, and also married Jonathan’s sister, Michal.
In Miner and Connolley’s book, they go into more details about the relationship between David and Jonathan than we have time for this morning. I want to highlight just a couple of things from their relationship, which spans vast portions of 1 Samuel. First, we just heard the story of their first meeting. We are told that their souls were bound together and that Jonathan loved David “as his own soul.” And Jonathan gives David prized possessions – including the clothes off his back, his armor, his weapons. That’s a pretty intense first meeting. If this meeting had happened between David and Michal or one of Saul’s other daughters we would almost certainly assume it was romantic in nature.
If you continue reading into 1 Samuel 20 you’ll find stories of Jonathan and his father getting into an argument over Jonathan’s relationship with David. Saul is displeased and thinks the relationship is shameful. When Saul tries to kill David, Jonathan is the one who warns David to protect him. The two pledge their eternal love to one another, kissing and weeping at their last meeting. And then, in 2 Samuel, we hear a song David sang when Jonathan was killed in battle, “Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan. Greatly beloved you were to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
Again, if David acted this way towards one of Saul’s daughters, we would automatically see it as a romantic and sexual relationship. Why not do the same for these two men, who were clearly devoted to one another, even putting themselves at risk to care for each other? Now, some will say, “But David was married! In fact, he was kind of a womanizer!” True. Trust me, we don’t have time today to talk about King David’s treatment of the women in his life. But, this isn’t a compelling argument. Plenty of gay men are married. Or perhaps David was bisexual? Just because he loved a man certainly doesn’t mean he couldn’t have also loved women.
Whew. And there you have it. What the First Testament of the Bible has to say about homosexuality, in a nutshell. Next week we’ll take a trip through the Second Testament. Thanks be to God for Biblical scholars who help us analyze and understand our sacred texts. And thanks be to God who is still-speaking, even through words that we previously thought were hateful. The Good News is still alive. Amen.