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Even the Gentiles

Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church
Eugene, Oregon
May 28, 2000

Acts 10:44-48

Last Sunday I put the sermon topic in the bulletin for this morning just to see if anyone would notice.  A few people did, the topic being the church and homosexuality.  I discovered that they were talking about it at another church by Sunday night!  There seems to be a little bit of controversy around this topic.  Have you noticed?

Someone said in the first service that they were so glad they came to a church where we never talk about controversial issues!  I really don't like preaching on controversial issues.  It is about much fun as bathing a skunk.  It stays with you for a long time even when you are finished.  The problem that I have, particularly on this topic, is that I know many good people whom I respect and who have entirely different views.  All preachers want to be loved.  When we preach on something on which we know someone who does not agree with us, it scares the heck out of us.  We fret over it, toss and turn in our sleep, etc.  So would you love me no matter what I say?

Why on earth would I choose to preach on this topic today?  For starters, it is Memorial Day weekend and I was hoping no one would come to church today.  I had so many people tell me that they were going to be gone today, I am surprised anyone is here this morning.  And they all wanted copies of the sermon, which of course worries me all the more!

Why today?  Seriously, this is a topic very much in the news.  The Vermont legislature recently voted to enact a form of civil union for gay and lesbian couples.  A Presbyterian agency has given official approval for their ministers to participate in such ceremonies.  The United Methodist church just recently reaffirmed its historic stand against the ordination of homosexuals.  Northwest Christian College here in Eugene had a bit of controversy on this subject not too long ago.  The Oregon Citizens Alliance has once again introduced an initiative that will be on our ballots this November concerning homosexuality and public schools.  Michael Kinnamon, our speaker last weekend at our Regional Assembly and the Dean at Lexington Theological Seminary, addressed the issue.  Dr. Sharon Warner, also from LTS, speaking to a group of our teachers and parents Thursday night on Christian education said that 'this is the issue of the decade which the church must address.'

It simply will not go away.  People want to know, 'where does the church stand on this issue?'  My short answer simply is, 'We don't.'  We don't take a stand.  Our denomination has on civil rights issues as it relates to homosexuality, but our congregation simply does not take such stands, or has not up to this point.  Of course, being a preacher, I don't have a short answer for anything.  So my long answer is a little more involved.  I have to begin by referring to my previous two sermons.  (There was method to my madness.  I was laying a foundation for what I have to say today.)

The first is that the central principle around which we are organized is that we have no creed but Christ.  That is, we have no test of fellowship other than faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  I did some checking with some of my Disciple colleagues at other churches and discovered that if a person comes to them who is gay or lesbian and asks, 'Would I be welcome as a member of your church?' every single one said without question, 'Yes, you would be welcome.'   Now whether or not they would be welcome as a leader of the church is another issue, but as a member, without question.

The second principle around which we organized is, we have no law but love.  Kinnamon this past weekend put it this way.  He said, 'We are called to welcome the stranger because we follow the one who welcomes us, those who were once also strangers.'  This is not an option for us.  To not welcome those who are different from us is to reject the very basis on which we are included in the family of God.  Even if we consider homosexuality to be an abomination before the Lord, says Kinnamon, we must welcome gay and lesbians into the body of Christ.  To do anything less, is to follow a God of judgment and condemnation, rather than a God of grace and love.  But because we have received that grace, we must open our arms to others.

I think there is wide agreement on these two issues in our church.  I sense that.  At least I hope that.  On the third principle around which we were organized in the 19th century the agreement fades, namely, we have no book but the Bible.  It is not that we do not agree with the principle, rather what we do with it, how we interpret scripture is where we lose unity.  Frankly those who preach against the sin of homosexuality have the advantage.  They can cite chapter and verse.

On his flight to Portland, Kinnamon told us that he sat next to a woman, who, upon learning that he was a theologian, was quite engaged and asked him all kinds of questions.   Among other things, she asked him what he thought about the news that had just been reported, that the Southern Baptist Convention had rescinded the possibility for women to seek ordination within that denomination.  Kinnamon replied that he was very much opposed to their action, that he certainly welcomed women in the church as ministers.  His own wife is an ordained minister.  The woman was rather surprised.  She said what about Paul, 'women keep silent' and Timothy, 'a deacon must be a husband of one wife' so on and so forth.  Kinnamon responded to her, that he never discusses such issues with anyone who takes scripture literally who has not sold everything they have, given it to the poor and gone to follow Jesus.  He said it was a very quiet plane ride after that.

That is one approach we can take, simply bracket out those scriptures with which we have a problem.  But I do not find that satisfying.  A couple of years ago we offered a Bible study on homosexuality.  Six weeks of looking in depth at what scriptures say on the topic.  When we offered it I thought we would get a wide range of folk because I thought that is where we were at as a congregation, people from all perspectives, for and against or somewhere in between.  I was looking forward to some spirited discussion on  the topic.  Instead we had 20 people, all of whom had pretty much made up their minds, looking for some confirmation that scripture would agree with them, that homosexuality was not the great sin they were taught to believe.  We had some great discussions about it, but it was not what I thought would happen.  Without repeating that entire Bible study I would just like to give some of the conclusions at which we arrived.

The first is that though there is some reference to homosexual activity in the Bible, there is no reference to homosexual orientation in scripture, none, zero.  That is an important distinction to make.  Second, most of those references to homosexual activity refer to male prostitution or to religious practices of fertility cults and not to what we see today.  Third, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah so often used against homosexuality is, in reality, the sin of inhospitality.  Fourth, Jesus said nothing about the topic.  Fifth, the most challenging text I find is from Romans 1 where Paul speaks of women who exchange natural relations for the unnatural and men who are consumed with passion for other men.  Then he goes on to list a whole catalog of sins, saying, They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  (Romans 1:29-31)

And then the conclusion that so often gets left out of the discussion:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.  (Romans 2:1)

In short, I can say with complete confidence, after much study, there is no biblical condemnation of, nor injunction against, long-term, consensual, loving, committed relationships between two people of the same sex.  Now I say again, this is my personal opinion and not that of the church.  I am certainly more than willing at anytime to spend more time with anyone in exploring and discussing the issue.

The single remaining theological issue, then, is simply the question of design, of God's intent for creation.  Male and female God created us, two separate and compatible sexes, or so we hope, who continue that creative act of God through procreation.  Thus it is often expressed, God created us as heterosexual beings, that it is God's intent that we live together as male and female.

There are two problems that I have with this idea.  First, it assumes that we are not whole beings unless we have a mate.  What does that say to single people?  Second, it assumes that we have a choice in such matters.  On the one hand I want to affirm that we do have a choice, that this is the basis of the whole notion of free will.  We chose to be Christian.  We chose, hopefully, to live moral lives.  We chose our vocation.  We chose to root for the Blazers that the good will triumph over the evil in the playoffs!  We chose these things.  Do we chose whether or not we are gay or straight?

On the other hand the evidence seems to me to be overwhelming, that we can no more chose our sexual orientation than we can chose our color of skin.  Indeed, the gay and lesbian Christians I know say that they are precisely who they are and the way they are because God made them that way.  This is the crux of the problem for us.

Here is where this story from Acts 10 comes to play for me.  Just as the inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in all levels of the church has been so controversial and problematic for us, so too was the inclusion of Gentiles.  The first Christians were one hundred percent, wholeheartedly Jewish.  From their perspective it was inconceivable that Gentiles could also be a part of the church.  Yet here was the evidence that God's spirit was with them too.  Thus Peter comes to that conclusion and Paul before him, that we must open the door and include them.  From that experience it is clear to me that question is not whether you are Jew or Gentile, Roman or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic, black or white, Republican or Democrat, gay or straight.  The question is, do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, period.

Quick story on the political issue.  (I so rarely make reference to such questions, of course.)  Chris Glaser, a Presbyterian minister, in seminary in the 70s, came out of the closet at that time and was very fearful as to how his family would respond to it.  He tells the story of his uncle, who, when he heard the news, this well-to-do Republican businessman, self-made macho man, from Texas, said to Chris's mother, 'Tell Chris that he is welcome in my house anytime so long as, he never, ever again, votes democratic.'  You have to know what really matters, I guess!

Does Reverend Glaser have the spirit of Christ?  I invite you to just listen to his reflections as he writes about his experience as a youth in his auto-biography, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian's Struggle to Serve the Church.

Condemned already by religion and psychiatry, I was too afraid to seek the counsel of either minister or psychiatrist.  So God became both minister and psychiatrist, as I had long walks and talks with God which often lasted over an hour.  As with my family, it seemed appropriate to discuss anything with God, but in contrast to my family, 'anything' meant also the realm of sexuality.  I prayed to God for what I inferred from society was necessary to become heterosexual:  I prayed for forgiveness, for change, for maturation--that I would 'grow out of ' my homosexuality.  I began worrying about the efficacy of my baptism... I heard other Christians' testimonies of miraculous conversion experiences, the 'born again' phenomenon, and feared I was not 'saved' because becoming a Christian for me had been far less dramatic.  'Maybe that's why I'm homosexual,' I would think.  So, I accepted Jesus over and over again in my prayers, on my knees, after thinking 'unacceptable' thoughts, sometimes as often as several times a day.  I believed once I was 'really' Christian, these thoughts would disappear.  But they never did. . . .

Outwardly I had many friends; inwardly I was lonely, wondering if those friends would still love me if they knew who I was deep inside.  Some days I feigned illness, stayed home from school, and simply cried, lonely and depressed.  The only friend of whom I could depend, the only friend who knew my terrible secret and yet had not deserted  me, was God,   This resulted in a heightened awareness of God's presence in my life and a deepening spirituality.  At the same time, it led to my desire to convert my sadness into joy, something I intuited as God's wish for me....1
I do not believe the spiritual development I experienced... was accidental.  I believe God's providence was seeing to it I had the spiritual resources to face the ordeals of coming years.  Growing up, I had spent hours talking with God about all I experienced.  Now, I continued to talk with God, whether during long walks at all times of day and night in all kinds of weather, or sitting alone in the prayer chapel underneath the main chapel at Yale Divinity School. . . .

I have maintained a disciplined prayer life, I have best been able to respond rather than merely react to life, and to do so with greater amounts of love, hope, and peace.  After all, if God's will can transform the problem of Christ's crucifixion into an opportunity for love, hope, and peace, so God's will can transform any problem or question into similar spiritual opportunity.

I don't know about you, but I hear the spirit of God in those words.  Experiences like this have convinced me, especially for those who struggle with similar issues, that it is vitally important, that we, as people of faith, sort these issues out.  It is clear that the church has lost many good people because they felt they would not be accepted here, even in this congregation.  It is also clear to me, that among our members, are not only gay and lesbian people who are fearful of being open about it, but also family members of gay and lesbians who have struggled with it.  We also have young parents and children who themselves will struggle with these very same issues in very personal, powerful and difficult ways.  The question I have is this, will we as the church, will we be open to them?  Will we create a place that is safe for them?

I suggest three things that we can do.  First, is that we can pray and pray some more.  Again I share with you Reverend Glaser:

I'd been taught as a child to listen for God's voice in the dramatic happenings of life, yet now, like Elijah, it would be beyond the earthquake, wind, and fire that I came to believe I might hear God's still, small voice.  I needed times of silent solitude to listen.  Spirit, scripture, spiritual direction were always available for guidance, but it was I who had to recreate the time, the silence, and the solitude.  Quieting my heart and mind, I could listen more to the hearts of others and seek more the mind of Christ.  This has been the toughest responsibility of my life. . .

This is why, in working with churches, I would later insist that worship and prayer must come first in parishioners' lives; if they had to choose between committing time to a church committee or attending Sunday morning worship, the latter should be their first priority.

Second is the importance of listening to others, listening to the experiences of gays and lesbians, especially of those who grew up in the church.  Also listening to those who are of the opposite viewpoint.  My vision of the church is to create that kind of place where we can be open and honest with each other, where we can dialogue with one another, even though we may have very opposed views, because we are united in our one faith in Jesus Christ.  It is that unity which allows us to respect each other and to engage each other in conversation.  Listen to each other.

Third and last, to study scripture.  Not just read it, but to seriously study it.  We are a biblical people rooted in a particular story, a story of God's ever expanding circle, that took in the outcasts, the people who had no other place, that welcomed them in, even the Gentiles.  If we truly understand that story, we ourselves will be a more open and loving people.

So there you have it, my conviction that comes from my own study of scripture, prayer and listening to others.  Mostly it comes from my heart.  If it is not the truth, I seek the forgiveness of God.  If it is the truth, I seek the forgiveness of my gay and lesbian sister and brothers, that I have been silent for so long.


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