Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book .  Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:

Do justice

A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

Matthew Sheppard Memorial Sermon – October 12, 2003

Matthew Shepard Memorial Sermon – October 12, 2003


Eighteenth Sunday after Pentacost

(Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Mark 10 17-31)

Trinity Episcopal, Seattle





by Nathaniel R. Brown

I wonder how many of here you have ever felt that every newspaper, every legislator, even the country you have grown up in  – is against you.  Lately I have felt this way to the point of depression, even of desperation.  Let me tell you why.


Five years ago today, Matthew Shepard died, pistol-whipped, beaten, and tied to a fence to lie through a long, cold Wyoming night, by two thugs who felt that the life of  a diminutive young man was worthless because he was gay.  Now Matthew is in his grave, and the two boys who killed them are in the living grave of life imprisonment. Three lives wasted.  It did not have to be so. 


Three weeks ago Canada's first legally married gay couple, heading to Braselton, Ga., to speak at a human rights conference featuring Coretta Scott King, were refused entry into the United States after U.S. border officials refused to accept their customs form stating that they are a family. 


Today also marks the launch, by more than two dozen groups - including the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Family Association, and the Christian Coalition – of "marriage protection week," an initiative which aims to make gay marriage the ”Number One social issue in the 2004 general election,”  endorsing a proposed constitutional amendment which would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.  The groups plan to issue bulletins in over 70,000 churches.  A week and a half ago the President proclaimed marriage Protection Week official.


(At a time when Afghanistan is turning sour, when Iraq is an on-going mess, when we are wondering what the CIA leaks really mean, when the poverty rate is up, more Americans are without insurance, and the economy is, at best, stale -  this is the “Number One social issue”?)*


This not only feels like a defeat, it also feels like rejection, like being used, and like a denial of my value as a human being.  It makes me very afraid.  Afraid of an avalanche of distortion, lies, stereotypes – and violence.  Whenever this sort of “crusade” is announced, and one has never been  announced at so high a level or with such broad support, violence against gays and lesbians breaks out. I am afraid that we will have another Matthew Shepard.


I am deeply discouraged, and I am profoundly tired.


I need to be personal here.  In April my beloved partner Chris was killed in a traffic accident.  I felt that the center of my life had been torn out.


At the same time, several other things happened:


Senator Rick Santorum compared being gay to bigamy, polygamy, incest, and adultery. Canon Jeffrey John, a leading theologian and a man of great wisdom, was forced, as a gay man, to withdraw as suffragan Bishop of Reading.  Then this summer, Gene Robinson, duly elected by the diocese of New Hampshire to be its bishop,  became the center of a smear campaign and a political firestorm; the smear was quickly shown to be baseless, perhaps even a tactic of those opposed to his confirmation.  The political firestorm remains with us amid threats to split the church.  Last week conservative US Bishops met in Dallas and threaten to split from the Episcopal Church; a few weeks ago the African Bishops met and agreed to present a united front against both the Episcopal Church and the diocese of New Westminster. All the Anglican primates are meeting this coming week, and we may see the Anglican Communion split apart over these issues.


At times I have felt like a punch ball.  My life has become something  to be generalized about, dissected by voices who have never known me or asked about me, and who claim to know more about my life than I do.  No one, it seems, is willing to listen.  It has been – it is - devastating. 


There are a few thin threads that let me hope.  I want to examine these threads, in the light of today’s readings, which are a sort of core-sample of the Bible.


The first part of the Bible is the early Old Testament, the Law - a vision of God as jealous, cruel and vengeful, who needs to be placated at every turn by strict obedience.  An entire code is given, which sets the people of Israel apart with a list of some 620 rules governing diet, what may or may not be touched, what crops may be sown and what cloths worn.  It is an unforgiving, fundamentalist view, and frankly, it feels like the direction in which some would have both our country and our church move. 


The second part of the Bible is the prophets, who begin to speak of compassion and justice.  The so-called Minor Prophets, such as Micah and Amos, speak in no uncertain terms about the duties of social justice and compassion, truth and honesty.  Amos, in our reading today, tells us to “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice.”


Finally, there is Jesus, who gives us two commandments which we as Christians believe sum up all the Law and the prophets: to love God, and to love our neighbor.  The rest of the New Testament is the record of Jesus’ followers reaching out to the gentiles, and to those who were unclean and untouchable under the old Law.  Since then, we have seemed at times to define ourselves more by whom we exclude or even persecute, than by whom we include and take the risk to love.  Jesus’ own words and life show us the way.  This Way is the first of the threads that holds me in the church.


Another lies within the Anglican tradition itself. 


After Henry the Eighth’s separation from Rome – it must have seemed to many like the end of all things good and holy - after the fires of Mary’s reign had gone out,  and after the ashes of the Catholic and the Anglican martyrs had been gathered, Elizabeth came to the throne of a nation where schism, repression, and war were in the air – exactly as is the case today.  The temptation must have been to enforce one single religion.  To her credit, Elisabeth realized that people could worship together, indeed had to worship together, yet still could disagree.  Her famous dictum, “I will make no windows into men’s souls,” marked the establishment of the Anglican Church: as long a people worshiped together, shared a common liturgy, came together at Christ’s table, they could manage somehow to live together. 


This is another of my threads: if we find ourselves divided in opinion, then I believe we need to look back to our Anglican roots, that grew in the soil of making no windows into men’s souls, and were watered by common worship; roots that throve by independence, but also by remaining in communion.  This can give us hope, but it is a position that demands the strength of being able to tolerate differences.  I will come back to this in a minute.


I  said that I was going to be personal.  I have to, because  I want to open a window to you.  Ten years ago I met my partner Chris.  We stood by eachother through times harder than I hope anyone in this room has had to face.  In April Chris was killed in a traffic accident and his ashes lie now in the garden behind me as I speak.  While we were together I found for the first time in my life what contentment and hope were, because I learned what sharing my life meant, what it meant to work at loving unconditionally; what it was to share joy and to have to admit to being wrong from time to time; what it was to care about another human being so deeply that the world at times seemed set about with more dangers than I had ever noticed - and I caught because of it all a joy-filled glimpse of God’s far greater and wiser love and compassion, and His unconditional love.


And some people would deny me that, and threaten to split our church and our nation if anyone feels otherwise. 


This is not only making windows into men’s souls, it is refusing to believe, or even to look at, what those windows might show.


They show many things. Each of us has such windows, some revelation that has given us a glimpse of the light and love of God.  For me,  part of that window was the gift of being born gay.  As I grew up, I learned that my innermost feelings, much that I knew only as good and wonderful, were held in loathing by others.  It was good to learn this, because I learned that people are different, do lead different lives, do grow toward God by different paths.


We hear many voices raised against homosexuals and against same-sex marriage.  I wonder to what extent what we are really hearing isn’t  really one group seeking to force its definitions onto the rest of us.  If so, it is spiritual arrogance, for in the body of Christ, each of us brings his or her own experience of life to lay at the feet of Jesus, and Jesus meets with the most outcast of us, and does not question us about  dogma, or differentiate between classes or station or gender, and when asked who will sit at his right hand, tells us that the first will be last, and the last will be first. 


I want to speak for a moment about same-sex marriage.  I realize that the term “marriage” will make some of you uncomfortable, but the Anglican tradition is that a marriage is a covenant made by and between two people, which the church blesses.  That is what I want, no more, no less.


Bishop Spong, not much in favor these days, wrote that,  “We have not in the past withheld blessing from many things.  We have blessed fields when crops were planted, houses when newly occupied, pets in honor of St Francis... We have blessed MX missiles called ‘Peacemakers’ and warships whose sole purpose was to kill and destroy, calling them, in at least one instance, Corpus Christi - the Body of Christ.  Why would it occur to us to withhold our blessing from a human relationship that produces a more complete person in each of the partners, because of their life together?”  And Jeffrey John has written that, as “a faithful gay relationship can be a source of blessing to the partners and to others around them, there seems to be no warrant for refusing to give it the blessing of the Church.” 


It is hard to see why refusing marriage to people who want to commit to it can be seen as defending marriage.  It is similar to people who cast out and reject their gay sons and daughters.  I have two friends to whom this has happened, and it does not seem to me to have strengthened their families.   Defending Marriage by denying it to people is like defending democracy by denying people the right to vote - it refuses to recognize them as fully human, as fully children of God, and is thus profoundly un-Christian.

Discussions of homosexuality are complex and emotional.  But much Biblical scholarship no longer supports rejection of homosexuals.  It is no longer a clear-cut issue, and it is simply not possible to say “the Bible is against it.”  I refer those interested to a bibliography that I have left on the table by the door.

We need to remember that same-sex marriage, indeed homosexuality it self, is not a central creedal matter.  We daily ignore many, or most, of the 620-odd rules of the Old Testament holiness code, and we are right to do so.  We do not tolerate slavery, we do not rush to purify ourselves if we touch a dead body or give birth, we lend money at interest.  We mix cloths and crops and eat shellfish.  And we do all these things –  clearly forbidden by scripture - because we are Christians and believe that  Jesus came to teach us to love.  He came with the good news that under the Law, through our own efforts, it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God, but that, “for God, all things are possible.”


Tolerance is not the answer.  Tolerance implies that one party has something to overlook.  It is not a Christian virtue, because Christians are commanded to love one another, not to “tolerate” eachother.  Love is hard work.  It must be a policy and a practice, not fall-back position after one side has established superiority over the other.  We need to be humbled in the face of God’s love for all us.  Archbishop Runcie put it this way, "In this earthly tabernacle of Christ's kingdom there are many mansions, and all of them are made of glass."  And C. S. Lewis observed, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” 

Dr. Linda Gaither put this magnificently in a recent sermon in which she speaks of compassion:

“Compassion scares us to death. It threatens our privileges, it demands change in our social structures… Compassion sees the dignity of every child of God, and acts to protect and promote that dignity, even at a cost to ourselves. To risk our privileges and our comfort is to fulfill our Baptismal Covenant: to proclaim the Good News of God's compassion in Christ, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to work for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person.”


Love needs to go both way.   Jesus taught us to love our enemies – perhaps the hardest of all the commandments.  In a lecture at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 Archbishop Rowan Williams put what I am trying to say like this:


In the body of Christ, I am in communion with past Christians whom I regard as profoundly and damagingly in error - with those who justified slavery, torture or the execution of heretics. They justified these things on the basis of the same Bible as the one I read, and these were people who prayed – probably more intensely than I ever shall. How do I relate to them? How much easier if I did not have to acknowledge that this is part of my community, the life I share... I do not seek simply to condemn them but to stand alongside them in my own prayer, not knowing how, in the strange economy of the Body of Christ, their life and mine may work together for our common salvation.


We must live in the hope that God’s justice will prevail - which is not “justice” as humans are tempted to define and practice it, but love.  But for now, I feel so tired.  We don’t need any more Mathew Shepards. 


Three threads keep me still in the church, and indeed in Christianity.   One is that Jesus’ life and words give us our direction.  One is a hope that we can learn to stop making windows into eachother’s souls and learn to worship together.  The third is a belief that we can come back to our lessons for today, which tell us that we must not push aside the needy in the gate; that we must seek good and not evil, for we know that in the end, many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. 


Love, compassion.  Those are the jobs that Jesus has given us to do.







Recommended Reading

 Leroy Aarons, Prayers for Bobby, Harper, 1995 – The deeply moving story of a fundamentalist Christian mother coming to terms with here son’s homosexuality after his suicide.

Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance, St. Martin’s Press, 1999 – Homosexuality in nature observed and exhaustively documented.

Howard H. Bess, Pastor, I am Gay, Palmer Publishing, 1995 – A very readable look at issues surrounding homosexuality by an American Baptist Minister. Probably the easiest source for broader examination of the "troublesome verses". Highly recommended.

John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press, 1980 - Highly scholarly and deeply notated; the study of linguistics and Biblical texts, and a history of the relatively "new" phenomenon of anti-homosexuality withing the Church and society. Fundamentally important reading.

Robb Formann Dew, The Family Heart, Addison-Wesley, 1994 – Well-written account of the growth of a family through coming to terms with the homosexuality of one of their sons. Highly Recommended.

Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture, Blackwell. 1998. A distinctively theological interpretation of scripture, as opposed to a subjective or personal one. Heavy, but most valuable.

Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, Alamo Square Press, 1994 – Examination of Biblical texts.

Richard Holloway, Dancing on the Edge, Fount/Harper Collins (UK), 1997 – Tremendously exciting look at core Christian beliefs in the post-modern age.

Richard Holloway, Godless Morality, Canongate (UK) 1999 – Presents a superb & challenging way of examining inherited dogma. Highly recommended as a basis for further examination and discussion.


John J. McNeill, Freedom, Glorious Freedom, Beacon Press, 1995 – McNeil, a former Jesuit, offers some of the most inspiring directions for gay and lesbian lives to take, in deeply spiritual and very clear writing. This was a very important book in my own coming to terms with spirituality as a homosexual Christian.

John J. McNeil, The Church and the Homosexual, Beacon, 1976

Eugene F. Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body, Blackwell, 1999 – A scholarly and very challenging examination of Christian attitudes towards homosexuality. Cannot be too highly recommended.

Colin Spencer, Homosexuality in History, Harcourt Brace, 1995 – Useful reference for historical questions and research.

John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin?, Harper, 1990 – Highly readable, thoughtful and at times provocative meditation on Christian sexual ethics. Highly recommended whether one agrees or not, as a starting point for reexamination of a broad range of issues.

Andrew Sullivan, Love Undetectable, Vintage, 1999 – A conservative and often inspiring reflection on homosexuality from a Catholic point of view.

Michael Vasey, Strangers and Friends, Hodder & Stoughton (UK), 1995 "A new exploration of homosexuality and the Bible." Very scholarly be most readable; highly recommended.










* This paragraph was not in the version as preached; I felt it inappropriate in a church setting to be so political.

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