Monday, July 6, 2015

The Elephant in the Room

I've never been one to ignore the elephant in the room. I am more like the boy who says out loud that the Emperor has no clothing, if indeed he is running around naked. So I am going to depart from my usual type of sermon in which I explicate one or more of the scriptures from this Sunday's lectionary or I answer a question from the Sermon Suggestion Box. I am going to deal with the momentous change that took place last week while I was at Florida SuperCon. I am going to deal with the subject of same-sex marriage.

The first time I really had to deal with the subject of homosexuality and Christianity was when the diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson as their bishop right before the triennial convention of the Episcopal Church. I was of two minds on the matter and so I asked my wife to sew a clerical collar and shirt for my dummy Felix. He and I had a conversation about the whole matter and the format allowed us to hop all over what is a large and unwieldy topic which can really only be adequately treated in a book. My wife thought it was the worst idea I ever had; turned out it was one of the best because I was able to discuss both sides and inject a little humor and using ventriloquism helped disarm the kneejerk responses to the topic. And in the end I had Felix say something like, “But didn't Jesus say that the way the world would know we are his disciples is by our love for each other? And wouldn't it be a powerful witness to the world if we Christians could disagree on something this important and yet still love one another?” To which I replied, “Maybe you're not such a dummy after all.”

Perhaps I'm a dummy for not using him today but that time it was something happening way up in New Hampshire and this time it's happening all over the country. A light touch was right then. This time I think we need to be more serious. Of course, the last time I did a serious sermon on this topic two presumably gay men who only came to our church once or twice each year stormed out angrily. Again I was trying to explore both sides and if there is one thing I have learned as a preacher is that to really tick people off, tell them that there is more than one position good Christians can take on a controversial subject. Apparently the God who made this universe and filled it with a mindboggling variety of things can have only one position on anything. I guess the people who think that way never read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 where it says, “To everything there is a season and a time for every activity under heaven.”

This is a subject I have given a lot of thought to over more than a decade. It is not an easy issue to decide and anyone who says it is has not seriously considered both sides.

Basically the problem is that what we have here is a genuine moral dilemma. A moral dilemma is not when you want to do something that you shouldn't. That just ordinary temptation. A moral dilemma arises when different ethical values clash. As a nurse I've had to deal with the problem of relieving severe pain in a terminal patient using strong pain medication which as a side effect might hasten the patient's death. Our oath, like that of doctors, is to first do no harm. Letting a patient suffer is harmful as is doing something that increases the likelihood of death. You wish to alleviate pain and stave off death. In this case, you cannot achieve both positive values; you must choose one, knowing that doing so will make the other impossible. If that choice of which is the lesser evil doesn't disturb you somewhat, if you think the decision should be a slam-dunk, then you either aren't a very good moral thinker or else you aren't a very moral person.

The dilemma in Christianity and homosexuality is that it pits the Bible, the source of what we believe and how we behave, against our biblically mandated compassion for the suffering. Nowhere in the Bible is homosexual behavior commended; every time it is mentioned it is condemned. On the other hand, gay people are suffering. They are subject to increased violence and death. In 2011, the FBI reported that 1572 hate crime victims were targeted because of their sexual orientation. Gays, representing at most 4% of the population, made up 20.4% of the total of hate crime victims. Despite the fact that they can now marry in every state, in 28 states it is legal to discriminate against gays in housing, employment and in serving them.

Now some may say, who cares? Why should we accommodate sinners? The problem with that is according to the Bible, we are all sinners. So should we deny everyone the right to buy or rent a home, to get or keep a job or to buy cakes from bakers or flower arrangements from florists? Of course not. Is this a worse sin than all the others? Hardly. In Proverbs 6:16-19, we read, “The Lord hates 6 things; in fact, 7 are detestable to him: arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet eager to run to evil, a lying witness who gives false testimony, and one who stirs up trouble among brothers.” Lying is mentioned twice; homosexuality not once. Nor is it mentioned in the 10 commandments. Nor in Jesus' list of evils that comes from the heart and defile a person (Mark 7:21-23). Nor in Jesus' parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25. In fact Jesus never mentions it. Moreover, homosexual behavior in mentioned in just 7 verses, out of 31,173 verses in the whole Bible. Obviously it is not a top priority.

You know what Jesus did mention? Adultery. And he considered divorce and remarriage adultery. I'm surprised the Westboro Baptist Church did not pick up on that. Imagine how many people they could picket then! Are their Bibles defective? Or are they being selective? And what if we denied housing and jobs and wedding cakes to everyone who ever got remarried? That's 4 in every 10 couples getting married every year. Are we being selective?

I have officiated at the weddings of people who were divorced. Should I have refused to do so based on what Jesus said? And some of them got divorced after I married them. Should I excommunicate them?

In Jesus' day, only men could initiate divorce. A man could do so if his wife displeased him in any way. Once divorced the woman found herself on the lowest rung of society, with little or no power. Jesus was protecting women in a system that was stacked against them. He was not referring to a situation in which, say, a woman was being abused and would want a divorce. But she still could not get one. This is still a problem in Orthodox Judaism where men can sadistically withhold a “get” or bill of divorcement, despite the couple separating. This way a man can prevent his estranged wife from remarrying. Jesus was not talking of such a situation.

Today things are different. Women can initiate divorce. Yes, people still divorce for less than stellar reasons. But we also understand that sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils. It is better than spousal abuse, child abuse, realizing you are married to a sociopath, etc. Nevertheless most Christians see marriage as two people becoming one and divorce as a rather drastic operation that is sometimes necessary. We do not treat divorcees as pariahs and we do not bar them from the sacraments. Many good people in our church are remarried.

If we are willing to move on in regards to something Jesus mentioned, why are we so reluctant to move on in areas in which Jesus said nothing? Jesus frequently broke the law when it clashed with helping the suffering. He healed people on the sabbath. He touched bleeding women, lepers, even the dead, despite the fact that this would make him unclean. He refused to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery and dissuaded others from carrying out the punishment laid out in the law of Moses.

Jesus famously told the Pharisees, who were scrupulous about following the law, that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom before them. Jesus appeared to Paul, a deadly prosecutor of the church, and called him to be the apostle to the Gentiles, people who were not part of God's people. Philip was directed by an angel to explain the gospel to a eunuch, who was excluded from the people of God by the law, and Philip baptized him. The gospel is about God's grace offered to all, for all are sinners in the sight of God.

One thing I notice is that in Acts when the apostles are addressing a new group of people they don't lead off with condemnation. They don't begin with a list of sins the crowd is guilty of. They start with the mighty acts of God culminating in Jesus Christ. They establish who Jesus is, what he has done for us and only then get to what our response should be. Too often what we say seems to boil down to “Have you heard the good news? You're going to hell!” That's not good news; which is to say, that's not the gospel.

In their proclamation of the gospel the apostles were following Jesus' lead, who did not start off by condemning his audience. (Aside from the Pharisees, whose sin of hypocrisy needed exposing.) Even when talking to the Samaritan woman, who was married 5 times (remember how Jesus views remarriage), Jesus acknowledged her situation but did not make a big thing out of it. He was more interested in giving her new life than doing an autopsy on her old life.

So what does this say about how we approach gays? We proclaim the good news to them. We do it not only with our lips but with our lives, showing God's love and grace. We do not show hatred. We approach everyone as a person created in God's image and as someone for whom Jesus died. We see everyone we meet as either a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ.

As Christians we are also called to alleviate suffering. After Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan who comes to the aid of a suffering stranger, Jesus says “Go and do likewise.” Gays are suffering. Just because one law changed does not mean that everything else is good with them. Besides suffering job and housing discrimination, gays are often rejected by their families when they come out. LGBT youth are 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexual youth, especially if they have experienced high levels of rejection from their families. 25% have been bullied. And until recently, they could not make medical decisions for their partners, nor take family leave to care for a sick partner, nor take bereavement leave should their partner die.

There is no question that marriage bestows mental and physical health benefits on a couple, including better social, emotional, psychological and economic well-being. A studies of twins showed that those that were married were less likely to be depressed by 13 standard deviations and ¼ as likely to report suicidal ideation. Married people live longer. And these benefits are much more pronounced when a couple is in fact married as opposed to merely living together.

So the fact that gays can marry will help alleviate a lot of suffering. So where does that leave this parish/congregation?

Contrary to what some fear-mongers have said, no one can force any clergy to officiate at any wedding. As I was taught during the ordination process, I must bury anyone who comes to me for that but I needn't marry everyone who seeks that of me. I am blessing the union in the name of God. If I feel that the match is not good, that it is a toxic relationship, that there is abuse or coercion, or it's not Christian, I will not perform the ceremony. I approach each wedding request on a case by case basis. And I insist on the couple participate in a 4 hour marriage class, which covers what the Bible says on marriage as well as what science has discovered about marriage. Plus the basics of positive communication and fighting fair. Marriage is a big step and I believe in the people involved being prepared.

I perform most of my marriages on beaches and at resorts. That's why most people come to the Keys to get married. Any use of the church for weddings has to be run by the vestry/council, of course.

But will I personally conduct same sex weddings? I am still wrestling with this. It is, after all, a moral dilemma, a clash between what scripture says, however faintly, and what I see as the correct, compassionate and healing pastoral response to a particular situation. Marriage is not to be entered into lightly, and neither should the blessing of a marriage. It will remain a case by case process for me. And I will have to rethink the Biblical portion of my marriage classes, at least when it comes to same-sex weddings. I do not yet have a good theology for same-sex marriage. And until I do, I'm afraid I cannot in good conscience prepare a couple properly to live the unconditional love that marriage was designed to be by God. Until I have finished this necessary work, any same-sex couple that comes to me I will refer to a colleague who has worked this through to his or her satisfaction.

So here I am again doing something unusual for one of my sermons. I have no firm conclusion to leave you with. This is a radical redefinition of marriage. Despite what some assert, there are no precedents in Christian tradition. It may be that God is doing a new thing here, as he did when he directed Philip to baptize the eunuch or Peter to proclaim the gospel to Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends and then baptize them.

The one constant is love. We are forbidden by Jesus to hate anyone, be they neighbor or enemy, Christian or non-Christian, gay or straight or questioning. That Q you see tagged at the end of LGBT sometimes can mean "Queer" or it can mean "Questioning." Some LGBT people say they knew what they were very early in life; a lot did not until puberty hit and then there was a considerable amount of time spent questioning. Ellen DeGeneres herself did not realize her orientation until her late teens, wondering why she was not boy-crazy like her friends. And I ask of the impatient a grace period to work out my position on this important matter of how I can best demonstrate God's grace and love to those who find themselves outside the mainstream when it comes to whom they most intimately love and wish to bind themselves to as one the way most couples seek to. I therefore ask for your prayers. And I commend myself to the Holy Spirit to guide me to the place he wants me to be. 

No comments:

Post a Comment