A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
By Richard Schisler email@example.com
Preached at All Saints Church, Portsmouth, Ohio, on August 31,
Sermon Pentecost 12-B, Proper 17
Gospel Mark 7: 1-8,14-15,21-23
August 31, 2003
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth. Oh God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant by that same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise and ever enjoy your consolations, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Good morning. I'm sure that by now many of you are getting tired of reading and hearing about the actions taken a few weeks ago at our General Convention in Minneapolis. I had not intended to comment on the consent given to the election of Canon Gene Robinson as the Bishop as New Hampshire until I began studying the Gospel which we just read. I feel that this Gospel reading compels me to talk about what transpired at our convention. As I'm sure you are all aware, Gene Robinson is an openly gay man who has been in a monogamous relationship with another man for the past thirteen years. He was married and has two daughters, and both hiss daughters and ex-wife were vocal supporters of his election as bishop. Before being elected as Bishop of New Hampshire, he had lived there for 28 years, and had been both a priest and then Canon in that diocese. When the General Convention consented to his election as bishop, the national media had a field day, and the consent became the lead story on most national news broadcasts that evening.
The week following the consent vote, I began reading as much as I could find on the internet, especially sermons and pastoral letters that discussed his becoming a bishop. I was struck by the civility and lack of rancor which was displayed during the debates at the convention, and had some faint hope that most if not all of those in attendance would support the consent action. National newspapers even editorialized that the convention should serve as a model to the nation as a humane way to resolve conflicts. Once the deputies and bishops began arriving back home, however, the tone began to change, and opposition to the consent became more vocal. Some began to ask "Where will we go from here?" and people were heard to complain that the church had abandoned them. I read one sermon where the rector proclaimed his joy in serving in a diocese where their bishop would "lead us out of this mess." A small number of bishops stated that a homosexual would never be ordained in their diocese as long as they were a bishop. Probably the most outrageous display occurred in Texas where a rector put the Episcopal flag on the floor at the front of the church, spat on it and then had then children come up and stomp on it. I even read where this was all a part of Gene Robinson's hidden agenda and was part of an evil left wing conspiracy. A contrast to the vast, right wing conspiracy we heard so much about a few years ago.
A recent "Life in These United States" piece in the Readers Digest may have captured the mood existing in many parishes. An Episcopal woman submitted a story about finding a prayer book in the pews which an acolyte had written notes in the margin, such as kneel here, stand, move to the alter, and so on. In one place he had written in bold print Incense The People. Some would have you believe that is what the General Convention does every three years.
The emotional debate has centered around one key issue- do the Holy Scriptures condemn homosexuality? Is it a sin to be homosexual? As I was attempting to resolve this in my own mind, I was reminded how fortunate and proud I am to belong to a denomination which not only allows but encourages us to reason through spiritual and theological matters. In our faith respect for intellect and conscience has led to a diversity of opinion and tolerance unlike that found in any other church. I agree with the oft quoted phrase we use in referring to ourselves: "We don't need to check our brains in at the door as we enter." The Episcopal Church itself survived a very rocky beginning at the time of the founding of our nation. Later the question of slavery threatened to split the church. More recently our involvement in the civil rights movement was attacked. Then the ordination of women was seen by some as the end of the church. Yet we survived all of these crises and I feel that we are stronger because of them. Let us pray that we will grow from this current divide.
The Old Testament book of Leviticus says that it is an abomination for a man to lie with a man as he does a woman. In both 1st Corinthians and 1st Timothy, most modern Bible interpretations list homosexuality as a vice and call it immoral. How then can homosexuality be defended as being anything other than contrary to the scriptures? The only way to avoid that conclusion is to explore the way in which we interpret and apply scripture.
I believe that all Holy Scripture is written for our learning. There are no "throw away passages" in the Bible. Rather as the collect for Proper 28 tells us, we are to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" scriptures to be informed persons of faith. Having said this, it is equally important to insist that scripture demands our best intellectual efforts. Snippits should never be used as proof texts; all scripture must be read in it's full context. Scripture study demands that we first understand what the passage meant at the time it was written. Only then can we begin to see what it means today. In Biblical times there was a great reliance on lumber, and one of the primary methods of transporting cut wood was by camel. The process of loading the wood on the camel's back was known as logging on, and was considered to be very dangerous since the large logs could fall off unless they were securely fastened. As a result, children were not allowed to participate in this process. A ancient manuscript was found along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contained the admonition that fathers are not to allow their sons under the age of 14 to log on. Someone looking at the passage today would be shocked to learn that computers existed in Biblical times. Of course I made all of that up, but it does point out the importance of understanding the context in which scripture was written. I like to look at a passage and ask what did it mean when it was written? What does it mean today and in our context? And what is it saying to me? I don't believe that revelation ended in the last book of the Bible. God is present and working in our lives always and we must look at our lives through God's eyes to see the truth.
Finally, we have the Anglican tradition of using a combination of scripture, tradition and reason is reading texts and discerning the will of God.
One of my ordination vows was to be faithful in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures. As a result of my study to determine whether or not Holy Scripture condemns homosexuality, I have concluded that when the Bible speaks of homosexuality it does not mean what we mean today when we use the same word. The subject of homosexuality is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments nor in the summary of the law. No prophet discourses on the subject. Jesus himself never mentions it, and as I'll explain in a minute, the few passages is Paul's letters and in first Timothy refer to something totally different.
It may surprise you to learn that the word homosexual did not come into existence until the late nineteenth century and did not appear in any translation of the Bible until 1946. Paul was writing against dishonorable passions or shameless acts being committed by the members of the church. The Greek word which he uses, loosely interpreted now as homosexual, actually referred to young male prostitutes. History tells us that the activities in the Greco-Roman environment in which Paul lived, which we would today refer to as homosexual, generally took place within relationships characterized by inequalities of power: the use of prostitutes, the abuse of slaves, or the abuse of young boys. All of these activities would be treated as a crime by any civilized county on earth today. There are no known writings which show any awareness of mutual sexual relationships between adults of the same sex. The concept of a homosexual orientation simply did not exist in Paul's time, so there is no way that he can be read as condemning a loving and committed relationship between members of the same sex. How distressing it is for me to see Paul quoted by the likes of a notorious homophobic Fred Phelps, a Baptist minister from Kansas. He traveled all of the way from Kansas to Casper Wyoming to carry in sign in front of the Episcopal church where young Matthew Shepherd's funeral was taking place. You might remember that Matthew was the young man that was brutally murdered and nailed to fence simply because he was gay. The sign which Phelps carried read: God Hates Fags. You and I know that God loves, and does not hate anybody.
It is my opinion, based upon all that I have read, that the Biblical writers never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the Gospel, with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer. This type of relationship simply did not exist in those days, so how can we say that Scripture condemns it??
I began this morning by telling you that today's Gospel is what prompted me to talk about the actions taken at General Convention, and I bet many of you thought that I'd never get to that. Back to the "abomination" which I referred to earlier, which is how the Book of Leviticus describes a man being with a man as a woman. This statement was contained in several chapters of the Book known as the Purity Codes or the Holiness Codes. These codes contained many stringent requirements pertaining to conduct, food preparation, personal cleanliness and other matters. Part of that code mandated that one's hands be washed before eating. In today's Gospel Jesus rebuked that code, saying that nothing which comes from the outside can make a person unclean, adding that uncleanliness can only come form within, from the heart. He said, in essence, that in spite of scripture, all foods are clean. He wasn't being cavalier and setting aside scripture, rather he was implying, as he had been throughout his teaching, what time it is, that it is time for the Kingdom of God to break in. The time has come, He was saying, for everything to be different. How often we read of Jesus saying "The Kingdom of God is like...". John the Baptist even proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Under God's Kingdom we are not bound by the strict codes of cleanliness and purity, but rather by what comes from with in us. So when read in this light, the "abomination" of Leviticus cannot be viewed as a condemnation of Gene Robinson's lifestyle.
About the only thing I really miss from the practice of law is trying cases before a jury. I used to enjoy, in my closing argument, anticipating what my opponent was going to argue, and comment on it before he or she had a chance to make their argument. So I can hear those claiming that all homosexual activity is contrary to Scripture scoffing and saying that is merely your interpretation. After all, Leviticus couldn't be any clearer. Jesus would not contradict it, they would maintain. While I would agree with them that I am advancing my own interpretation, I would point out to them that in the same Book of Leviticus we read "Anyone who injures a neighbor shall receive the same in return, broken limb for broken limb, eye for eye, tooth for tooth." Yet in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus specifically refutes this declaration, saying that instead of an eye for an eye that we should offer our other cheek. Just as proponent s of the death penalty are wrong to rely upon the eye for eye language to support their position, so is it wrong to rely on the Leviticus "abomination" language to advance a scriptural condemnation of homosexuality.
So I don't think that there is any Biblical source to substantiate the claim that Gene Robinson's having a make partner is contrary to Scripture. Again, I'm not talking about a promiscuous, reckless affair, or experience, but rather one which is based upon love and mutual respect between the people involved, regardless of their gender. It is interesting to note that in all of the letters and comments made which claimed that the consent to the election was contrary to scripture , not one which I read mentioned that Canon Robinson had been divorced. Jesus did specifically condemn divorce, yet through our reading of scripture, supplemented with our evolving tradition and our use of reason, we have not seen that as an issue to warrant the withholding of consent. Not that I am in any way condemning divorce, I'm simply using that as an example of how you cannot pick and chose which portions of scripture are controlling. Also, if someone had only been here for a couple of minutes in the middle of this particular discussion, they could go charging out of here saying that some guy at All Saints is criticizing divorce. That gets us back to the important issue of the context in which something is said.
I know that what I have talked about may be hard for many of you to be comfortable with, and I may have even offended some of you, but I sincerely hope that you will think and pray about my message today. What I am saying is merely my interpretation, based upon what I have read. I am attempting to challenge you to consider what I'm saying, to pray and think about it, and to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit to guide you. We worship a loving God whose Son lived among us to display what true love can be. We cannot become slaves to our own particular notion of Christianity and Scripture and what they mean. Remember, we are not only Episcopalians, but we are Christians, meaning that we are followers of Christ. Forward Day By Day had two excellent messages this week. The first appeared on Tuesday where the author said that we all have a box within us which is marked as religion, and if you tell me something that doesn't fit in my box, then why should I believe it. I would hope that our boxes marked religion would grow in size and not be made of thick metal or hardwood, but rather made of something more similar to Spandex or elastic, with room to grow.
Today's meditation talks about the danger in mis-understanding tradition. It seems that a young bride was getting ready to cook a roast and she cut off the end of it. Her husband asked her why she was doing that, and she replied that she didn't know, but that it was what her mother always did. They called her mother to see if should could explain the practice, and she simply said that she also did it because that was what her mother did. A call to the bride's grandmother solved the mystery. "Sure I cut the end of the roast off. I had to. The pan was too small." We need to review our traditions, such as our preconceived notions about homosexuality, and see if we, like the bride and her mother, have been blindly and following them for reasons which we don't understand.
My friend A.L. Addington told me recently that he was giving a talk to a group of college students, and that he told them that he was sure that all of them were familiar with Cliff Notes, those little books which tell you what a big book says. He told them that God put Cliff Notes in the Bible, thereby doing for students what few professors would do. God told us just what we need to know to pass the test. The notes were very simple: "You should love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul. The second is like the first-you should love your neighbor as yourself." That's it.
It is my hope and prayer that people do not leave our church because of the actions which were taken recently. But we must remember that we are striving for unity, not unanimity, so we may lose some people. And if we do, I feel certain that our ranks will be bolstered by new folks who will be drawn by the love and compassion which we have learned from our Savior. When Archdeacon Hanisian was here a couple of week ago, we were talking about the consent vote and he used an analogy to which we call all relate all too well, that of an ice storm. . He said that when the trees were covered with ice that there were those who looked at them admiring the majesty and beauty that God had created. Then there were those who looked at the same branches and could think only of the inconvenience which the ice storm would cause them. Regardless of how we viewed the trees, and my guess is that all of us shared both lines of thought, we need to remember that before a tree can grow, it must be pruned.
Even though what I've talked about this morning may seem difficult for you to deal with or accept, you need to know that I have never had such an easy time writing a sermon. It was easy for me because I feel that I know how Jesus would respond to the question before us. Yes, the popular WWJD. In addition to thinking about what He would do, I also had another thought. WWJL. Who would Jesus love? We must realize that He would and does love all of us, especially the oppressed and those on the margins. It is obvious to me that Jesus was proclaiming a gospel which was and is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and we need to accept and practice that inclusion. The Jesus that I know and love stretched out arms so that He could embrace people and bring them to Him. I cannot image Him using those same arms to shove people away from Him. This thought is stated beautifully in a poem by Edward Markam:
He drew a circle that shut me out,AMEN
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.
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