Sunday, August 23, 2015

“What does the Second Testament say about homosexuality?”

Sunday August 23, 2015 
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

Last week we explored what the First Testament of our Bible has to say about same-sex relationships. If you missed it, you can always catch up on past sermons on our website. This week, we’re continuing on into the Second Testament and seeing, specifically, what we can find there about sexual orientation.

So, in the entirety of the Bible there are six “clobber passages”[1] – passages that have been used to beat up on people who are gay, lesbian and, and bisexual. We’re going to look at the three of those that are in the Second Testament today, but before we do, I want us to notice something: the three clobber passages in the Second Testament are found in the Epistles. None of them are in the Gospels. I’ve heard people say, “Jesus never says anything about homosexuality,” and that’s kind of true. It’s true that he doesn’t say anything negative about homosexuality. But there is that one time when he meets a man who seems to be gay….and, well, we’ll get to that in a few minutes.

First, though, a word about Jesus and the Bible. Jesus obviously didn’t have the Bible as we have it today. But he did have the First Testament. Those were his foundational stories. He knew them, loved them, taught them. I think we can learn a lot about how we are supposed to interact with the Bible by watching Jesus interact with his Bible. Jeff Miner and Tyler Connolley who wrote this amazing book, The Children are Free, note that Jesus approached the Bible with common-sense and compassion.

Common-sense: you can see this in Mark 7.[2] By the way, I’m going to be referring to so many tidbits of scripture this morning that I put the references in the bulletin for you. In Mark 7, some leaders were cranky because they noticed Jesus’s disciples eating without washing their hands first. Now, we’re thinking about germs, but this was, oh, a few thousand years before people knew about germs, so they were simply noting that it was against the religious laws to eat without washing your hands first. Jesus fires back, saying, essentially, that what you eat can’t damage your soul. Instead, it’s all the ickiness we have inside of us – our propensity to sin – that can damage our spirits. This is very practical: food goes into your stomach and then exits your body. It doesn’t change your soul, says Jesus. He’s a common-sense kind of guy when it comes to interpreting the Bible.

Compassion: let’s take a look at Matthew 12. Again, religious leaders notice that Jesus’s disciples aren’t following the rules. They are picking grain on the Sabbath, which is a big no-no. Jesus uses a couple of passages from his holy texts to argue with them, essentially saying, “Look, when people are hungry, they need to eat.” Feeding hungry bellies trumps doing things to the letter of the law. He’s practical. He’s compassionate.

So when we approach our texts, I like to think that we should strive to be like Jesus. Practical and compassionate.

Let’s begin by taking a look at those three clobber passages in the Second Testament. Romans 1: 25-27 is similar to the things we read in Leviticus last week. It’s a laundry list of “things to avoid” because “you don’t want to be like those other people over there.” At first glance, this appears to be a pretty straight-forward condemnation of people who are gay and lesbian: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”

But it’s worth noting that those statements are just one part of a very carefully laid out progression of problems that Paul is defining. Miner and Connolley note that Paul is specifically saying this: the problem is people who ignore God, start worshiping idols, care more about themselves and their bodies and “earthly” things than God, let their own lust and passion control their lives – making decisions based entirely on their sexual desires, and turned into people who were “full of every kind of wickedness”…Paul goes into a long list there including murder, envy, gossip. You can read the rest in your pew Bible if you want.

So a lot of scholars agree: this is not about a sweet 16 year old girl who wants to ask another girl to prom; or a 53-year-old man who’s been in a committed partnership with another man and decides to get married after many years together; or about any of the scores of gay and lesbian people who do the same boring stuff straight people do: like go to the grocery store, argue over the bills, and worry about their kids on the first day of school.  

This is about people who are losing control of their lives because they turn away from God, worship idols, and are consumed by pursuing their own pleasure at any cost. They care more about their own pleasure than anything else. They’ve made it into a God. That’s not okay, Paul says. This is a very specific condemnation and simply does not apply to most gay and lesbian people in our world today.

There are, of course, ways of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual that are sinful. Being so self-centered that you care about nothing but your own pleasure is a problem. But it’s a problem some straight people have, too. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Next up, we’ve got two very similar “sin lists” in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1:10. These two lists vary a lot in different translations. In the NRSV the Corinthians passage includes “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers,” and the Timothy passage includes “murderers, perjurers, liars, slave traders, fornicators, sodomites,” and more.

The reason the English translations vary so wildly is this: we mostly have no idea what some of these words mean.

One of them is malakoi which literally means “soft” in Greek.[3] Remembering that gender norms were clearly defined in their culture, this was basically like calling a man girly or effeminate. And what they meant by that (get ready for this ladies) was that the man was weak, lazy, cowardly, and struggled with self-control. Hmm. But it doesn’t really have anything to do with a man’s sexual orientation. It’s just about his behavior and general character.

The other word is arsenkoitai. And this one is really a mystery. Some people even think Paul made it up, because it doesn’t seem to exist before he uses it in 1 Corinthians. It’s a compound word: male and bed. So something like male-bedders. Some have interpreted that to mean gay men. But that’s not so clear-cut. After all, Miner and Connolley point out that if you were studying the world lady-killer in the future you might not understand it. Does it mean someone who kills ladies? Ladies who kill other people? You’d be very surprised to discover it actually means a man who is very popular with ladies. We really just don’t know what male-bedder means. We’re guessing. What we do know is that it often gets listed with economic sins in lists – for example, in 1 Timothy it comes between prostitution and kidnapping/slave-trading. So it likely has something to do with a sex act that is rooted in economic exploitation. That’s about all we can gather.

And that’s it for the clobber passages. But there are a couple of potentially-affirming passages in the Second Testament. First, the story of Philip and the man from Ethiopia who was a eunuch found in Acts 8.[4] Philip was commanded to go to a road outside of Jerusalem. Once he got there, he ran into a man from Ethiopia who was also a eunuch. The two studied the Bible together and then the nameless man asked to be baptized and Philip baptized him without hesitation.

This man was suspicious on three levels. He was alone on a wilderness road where travelers were often ambushed. He was a foreigner. And he was a eunuch.  We know that eunuch meant several things at that time. Jesus himself refers to three categories in Matthew 19: those who were born eunuchs, those who were made eunuchs by others, and those who made themselves into eunuchs for the glory of God. Eunuchs were often made into high court officials – just like the man on the road that Philip encountered. They were able to have proximity to the queen because they could be trusted to have no desire or ability to procreate with the queen. So some who were “born eunuchs” were likely men who seemed to have no interest in women. This is not to say that all eunuchs were gay, but it is to say that eunuchs were strongly associated with homosexuality. No matter to Philip. He talks to the man, teaches him, prays with him, baptizes them. No problem.

Finally, I told you earlier that Jesus didn’t say anything negative about homosexuality…but he did meet and help a man who seems to be gay. That’s the passage Craig read earlier from Matthew 8, the story of the Roman soldier who came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant.[5] That word “servant” is pais in Greek has three possible meanings: 1) boy or son, 2) servant or slave, 3) male lover. Miner and Connolley note in Luke’s version, the sick person is also referred to as entimos duolos – honored servant. Further, the soldier uses the word doulos to refer to his other servants. So their conclusion is that this is not just any boy, but a young man who is a unique and special kind of servant. He’s not like the other servants. He’s different.

It would have been common in their culture for adult homosexual men to acquire partners the same way heterosexual men did – by purchasing them. Heterosexual men essentially bought wives. Homosexual men had the option of buying men (usually younger men) for their lovers. Of course, this opens up all kinds issues for us in the 21st century because we frown upon buying young people as sexual partners, regardless of whether the relationship is hetero- or homosexual. It’s entirely possible, though, to imagine a scenario where the Roman soldier and his pais were in a committed and fulfilling relationship – just as may have happened with young women who were sold as brides.

And this soldier certainly seems to care deeply for his pais. He cares enough to come to Jesus, an outsider, and ask for help. All of the other stories in the Gospels are about Jesus healing the person who asks for help or their family members – we don’t have any other stories about Jesus being asked to heal a servant. Perhaps this story is also about family and about the love shared between two men who had no other way to be family in their culture.

Jesus responds to the Roman solider in a way that is pretty unsurprising, given what we know about the type of person Jesus was. He lived his life guided by the same values that he used for Biblical interpretation. He was practical – if someone is dying and you can help, you help. You don’t waste time talking about their sexual orientation. And he was compassionate – he could see that the Roman soldier cared deeply about his pais. He didn’t have to ask a bunch of questions about the nature of their relationship. Instead, he showed compassion on this man who had come seeking help. He did what was asked. He healed.

And I think Jesus offers to do the same thing for the Church and our world today. In the midst of arguments that have gone on in churches for decades now, Jesus reaches out to us and models a way of common-sense and compassion. He calls upon us to pay attention to the big picture and to the core values of our faith – love, hope, kindness, justice, mercy, grace, new life. That’s what really matters. That’s who we are called to be as followers of Christ. And so, we follow our model, Jesus – who reached out in love, again and again, freely giving of himself to all he encountered and standing up for those who were marginalized. Thanks be to God for words of healing and hope in our Holy Scriptures.

[1] I borrowed this phrase from Jeff Miner and Tyler Connolley’s book The Children are Free, but have also seen it used several other places.
[2] Interpretation for Mark 7 and Matthew 12 (next paragraph) comes from Miner and Connolley.
[3][3] Info about malakoi and aresenkoatai from Miner/Connolley and Adam Phillips.
[4] Historical background information on Acts 8 from Miner/Connolley.
[5] Historical background on Matthew 8 from Miner/Connolley.

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