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Is Homosexuality a Sin?
by Rev. Dr. Kathlyn James
Lake Washington United Methodist Church
Last August, we had a special Sunday in church called "Burning Questions," in which I responded, on an impromptu basis, to written questions from the congregation. At that time, I also promised to preach a series of sermons later in the year that would specifically address the top three, or most-asked questions submitted on that day. I have to admit, I could not have predicted the 'top three' questions that would come my way! They were: (1) Is homosexuality a sin? (2) Is there a hell? And (3) How can we forgive? This morning we begin by looking at the first of these: Is homosexuality a sin?
In preparation for today, I gathered together all the materials I could find on this subject. I gathered official denominational studies on homosexuality and the church -- not only the United Methodist study guide, but also documents from the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ. I also made a stack of books with titles like Living in Sin? by an Episcopal bishop, and Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? by two evangelicals. I eventually had a stack of books and papers a foot deep on my desk. I spent the next several days reading, making notes, and preparing a line of argument for this morning's sermon.
But long about Tuesday of this week, I stopped and asked myself a question. What was my goal -- what is my goal, in addressing this topic from the pulpit this morning?
As your pastor, I know very well that homosexuality is a tender subject among us. It is an issue on which, as Christian people, we have diverse opinions and often very complex feelings. But I also know that this is a real question among us; it is not just a theoretical one. That's why you raised it. There are parents sitting here this morning who are wondering why their child is gay, does it mean they've done something wrong, and has anyone else ever struggled with this. There are gay and lesbian Christians who are active members of the church, but who live in the closet because they don't want to lose their jobs, their homes, or your friendship and respect.
There are teenagers here who have contemplated suicide because they suspect they might be gay. Each of us here has our own background, confusion, and experience with this issue. It is time we talked about it.
My goal, this morning is to open the conversation. And this is the thought that occurred to me on Tuesday: what is the best way to begin the conversation? It's not by presenting a logical line of argument. That's how you begin a debate, not a conversation! The best way to begin a conversation, in which you want others to feel free to speak their mind, and no perspective to be silenced, is simply speak from your heart, out of your own experiences.
So let me set aside my pile of books and papers, this morning, and share with you at least part of my own journey around this issue. In the months ahead, beginning with the "dialogue" time immediately following church today, I invite you to do the same.
I grew up in an atmosphere of traditional values. My family belonged to a Congregational church in which, week after week, I absorbed a basically mainline Christian theology that emphasized the love of God for all people. I was taught that the most important thing in life is to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In that environment, oddly enough, I don't remember one word ever being spoken about homosexuality. I don't even know when I first heard the term -- probably not before high school. When I did, it was not with any heavy overlay of negativity -- and in this, I have come to realize, my experience is very different from many people. I did not grow up being told homosexuality was shameful or sordid; I never had a bad experience such as being molested by a person of my own gender. Only as an adult do I realize what a tremendous impact such early experiences have in shaping people's attitudes toward homosexuality.
In fact, I had never met a homosexual person, as far as I knew, even into my twenties. This combination of influences meant that my attitude was pretty much "live-and-let-live." I didn't see how it hurt anyone, or how it threatened me, if two people of the same sex wanted to love each other and live together. What was the big deal?
It really wasn't until seminary, when I was thirty years old, that the issue acquired a human face for me. Her name was Sally. I was a commuting student at Vancouver School of Theology, with a job and a husband and three children in Seattle. I drove up to Vancouver on Mondays and came home on Wednesdays, so I needed a place to stay two nights a week. Sally had a studio apartment on campus that she was willing to share in return for prorated rent. Over the next three years, Sally and I became fast friends.
I had never met anyone like Sally. For one thing, she was much more disciplined in her spiritual life than I was. She got up at 5:00 every morning, which I thought of as an ungodly hour, and left the apartment for a walk or a bike ride, during which she would pray. She bought all her clothes at Goodwill and had only five changes of clothing and two pairs of shoes in the closet. She spent several days a week volunteering in a soup kitchen downtown. She kept a prayer journal. Basically, she put me to shame. But the most appealing thing about Sally was that she loved God. She laughed easily, loved life, loved people, was funny and fun. One night, as we were going to bed--each of us in a single bed lined against the wall, our heads in the corners and our feet toward each other --she asked if I wanted to pray. I had never prayed with another person before--at least, not like that, opening our inner lives before God, in each other's presence--and at first I was halting and shy. But over time we made a habit of praying together, and it was in the course of those years of praying, of being honest with ourselves as possible in the presence of God, that Sally came out to herself as gay.-
It was no problem for me that Sally was discovering this--and I have to add
here, that like most people, Sally discovered her sexual orientation; it wasn't
something she decided. Isn't that true for you, that your sexual orientation is
something that just seems "given"? It wasn't as if Sally woke up one morning and
thought, "All things being equal, I think I'd like to be a member of a despised
minority." It was more a process of discovering and owning the truth about her
make-up as a human being.
But I soon learned what a traumatic discovery that would be. Sally came out first to herself before God, then to her family, then to the seminary, then to the church. I accompanied her in that process. When the Presbyterian Church kicked her out of the ordination process, I was stricken; how could they say that Sally was not qualified to be a pastor? She was the best student in her class, and a better Christian than I ever expect to be. I knew that she had been gifted and called to the ministry. Then Sally was fired from her job as the Youth Director at the church, because someone sent the pastor a letter saying that she was gay. All I could think at the time was; this is absurd, this is evil. Sally is great with those kids; why would people assume she is not safe to work with them? Why did they think a heterosexual man or woman would be safer?
Things came to a head for me, one morning; when I was standing in the kitchen, pouring a glass of orange juice, and listening to Sally cry her eyes out on the bed. She often did, in those days. Finally I went over to her, sat on the edge of the bed, and began to stroke her hair. I was filled with helpless rage at the world, and fierce tenderness for my friend. I heard myself saying, "Sally, I don't know what being gay is. But if it's part of who you are, and if God made you this way, I say I'm glad you are who you are, and I love who you are, and I wouldn't want you to be any different."
As soon as those words were out of my mouth, I realized something. I had taken a stand. I knew where I stood on this issue. Sally did not deserve to be despised and rejected; it was the church that was wrong. After seminary I was appointed to serve Wallingford United Methodist Church in Seattle, which had decided some years earlier to become a reconciling congregation -- that is, a congregation that publicly states it is open and affirming toward all people, regardless of sexual orientation. From that point on, my learning curve was steep! One of my first pastoral calls was to a young man who had just slit his wrists with a razor blade. He explained that he was a Christian and couldn't deny it, that he was also gay and couldn't deny that either, even though he had tried. He had been told he couldn't be both. His father had called him "human garbage” and that “He was not fit to live”. All I could do, in response, was to get down on my knees and ask for forgiveness for the church, for communicating to this young man that he was beyond the reach of God's love.
In the five years that followed, I had many such experiences. I had young men with AIDS look up at me with hollow eyes and ask, "Do you think I am an abomination?" I sat with young men calling for their parents as they died, parents who never came. These experiences had a profound impact on me. I kept going back in my mind, again, and again, to my earliest Christian training; the message that God loves everyone, and that Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. He didn't say, "love your neighbor, unless he or she happens to be homosexual." He never said one word about homosexuality at all.
Jesus spent his whole life going to the poor, the marginalized, the persons who were called unclean by their society, and demonstrating that God's love included them. He treated them with compassion. His own harshest words were for the Pharisees who believed that they were righteous in God's eyes, that others were not, and that God's judgments and opinions were identical to their own.
Which brings me to the question of what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. There is not time, this morning, to take up that question in depth -- we will have plenty of time for that later, in ongoing Bible studies and discussion. But let me say a few things here. The world "homosexual" does not appear anywhere in the Bible -- that words was not invented in any language, until the 1890s, when for the first time the awareness developed that there are people with a constitutional orientation toward their own sex.
In the whole Bible, there are only seven brief passages that deal with homosexual behavior. The first is the story of Sodom and Gomorra, which I preached on last fall, which is actually irrelevant to the issue. The attempted gang rape in Sodom has nothing to say about whether or not genuine love expressed between consenting adults of the same gender is legitimate.
Neither does the passage in Deuteronomy 23, which refers to Canaanite fertility rites that have infiltrated Jewish worship. Passages in I Corinthians and I Timothy refer to male prostitution. Two often-quoted passages prohibiting male homosexual behavior are found in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus also stipulates that any man who touches a woman during her menstrual period is to be stoned to death, that adulterers are to be executed, that interracial marriage is sinful, that two types of cloth are not to be worn together, and certain foods must never be eaten.
I know of no Christians, no matter how fundamentalist, who believe that Christians are bound to obey all of the Levitical laws. Instead we are driven to ask deeper questions about how to rightly interpret Scripture, how to separate the Word of God from cultural norms and prejudices -- that is, how to separate the Message from the envelope in which it comes.
The final Biblical text that deals with homosexual behavior is found in Paul's letter to the Romans, in which he unequivocally condemns homosexual behavior. The background for his understanding was the common Roman practice of older males 'keeping' young boys for sexual exploitation, which he was right to condemn.
But even if this were not the case, even if Paul knew about and condemned all forms of homosexual behavior, even the most loving, what then? Paul also told women not to teach, not to cut their hair, not to speak in church. Do we follow his teaching? He told slaves to obey their masters not once, but five times -- are we prepared to say today, as Southern slave owners argued 150 years ago, that slavery is God's will?
The fact is, I am not a disciple of Paul. I am an admirer of Paul, but a disciple of Jesus Christ. Paul himself says that we should not follow him, but Christ alone. So I come back, again to the life and teaching of Jesus as the center of my faith. In that light all other biblical teaching must be critiqued. There are seven passages about homosexual behavior in the Bible, all of which are debatable as to their meaning for us today. There are thousands of references in the Bible that call us, as Jesus commands, to love our neighbor, to work for peace and reconciliation among all people, and to leave judgment to God.
When I was pastor at Wallingford, I put biblical and intellectual foundations under my "heart" experience of knowing Sally. In those years I also came to appreciate a community in which both gay and straight Christians could worship together, serve on the Trustees, sing in the choir -- simply be human together, trying to grow in the capacity to love God and neighbor without fear.
As a result, when you ask me, "Is homosexuality a sin?" My answer today is: "No." I may be wrong, and I ask God's forgiveness if I am. But I don't believe that sexual orientation has anything to do with morality, any more than being blond or tall or left-handed does. Homosexuals as well as heterosexuals can be involved in sexual sin, including promiscuity, infidelity, and abuse. And homosexuals as well as heterosexuals can love one another with faithfulness, tenderness, and integrity. The same standards of moral behavior should apply to Christians, straight and gay. That is what my life experience as a pastor has led me to believe.
When a homosexual couple comes to meet with me in my office, then, and asks, "Will we be accepted in this church?" I can answer, "I will accept you." But I can only speak for myself. What shall I say on behalf of our whole congregation?
Shall I say, "Yes, you will be accepted here, as long as you aren't open about who you are and who you love?" Shall I say, "Yes, you will be accepted here, but you may not serve in any leadership positions." Shall I say, "Yes, you will be accepted here, but whatever you do, don't hold hands in church. Only heterosexual couples are allowed to do that." Shall I just say, "No." Or, perhaps, simply, "Yes."
The only way we will arrive at a consensus on how this question should be answered is by taking time, over the coming year, to examine ourselves, study the Bible, think, read, pray, listen, and share our diverse life experiences with each other, asking together what God is calling this congregation to do and be.
Let the conversation begin.
This sermon is reprinted here with permission granted by Rev. James on July 9, 2008. She is now the Senior Pastor at the Edmonds United Methodist Church in Edmonds, Washington.
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