Memorial Sermon – October 7, 2007
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Habakkuk 1:1-6; Timothy 1:1-5; Luke 17:5-10)
Trinity Episcopal, Seattle
I am speaking today because nine years ago yesterday, on
October 6, 1998, a rather delicate young gay man named Matthew Shepard was
kidnapped in Laramie, Wyoming, brutally beaten, and tied to a fence where
remained through the night in sub-freezing temperatures. He was found the next
day – the 7th, today - by a passing biker, and taken to a hospital. He
never regained consciousness. The Episcopal priest who came to his bedside said
that Matthew was beaten so badly as to be unrecognizable, and that the only
part of his face not covered with blood was where the tears had run down his
cheek. He must have known what was happening, and been as helpless as he was
alone. He died on the 12th. This was an event which can still bring
tears to my eyes when I remember it.
This is not going to be the same homily that I had
originally planned to deliver today.
What I had hoped to speak about was the progress that we have made in recent years toward establishing equal
human rights, dignity, and inclusion for gay people in our society and in our
church. I had hoped to celebrate that
progress, and link it to the progress that has been made in other human rights
areas ranging from racial equality to women’s rights. And certainly there is much to celebrate, though in all these
areas, much remains to be done, and much is even threatened.
then two weeks ago our bishops met in New Orleans with the Archbishop of
Canterbury, and part of what I have to say today is that I am devastated by
what came out of the meeting - and perplexed by feelings of alienation,
disappointment, and betrayal.
Wednesday the 26th, the bishops issued a statement reconfirming the General Convention’s
Resolution B033, which states that the Episcopal church will “exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any
candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the
wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” They clarified this statement by adding, for
the first time: “The House acknowledges that non-celibate gay and lesbian persons
are included among those to whom B033 pertains.”
No more avoiding actually saying it: No Gays.
For a good, long time, too: The last General Convention
pledged in a last-minute resolution not to do anything “unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across
And we all know when that will be.
Next year, in Jerusalem.
bishops seem to be worshiping at the twin idols of unity and appeasement, and
the sacrificial lambs are gay/lesbian people.
I ask you whether inclusion so long and so
indefinitely deferred can be called inclusion at all? And how in God’s name we
can bring the gospel to the gay community after this?
One result of all this is that it seems most unlikely
that the duly elected and consecrated bishop of New Hampshire will be invited
to the Lambeth Conference next year - though some compromise may be worked out
to allow him to attend in some sort of bubble of here-but-not-here. Let me make it very clear that Bishop
Robinson is not the only homosexual bishop in the Anglican communion - I know
that, you probably know that, and the Archbishop of Canterbury certainly knows
that. But he is the only honest one,
and we are fallen so low that we reward bishops who hide and lie, and let them
come to the table, and even dictate who may not come.
Another result is that officially
at least, we will have no blessings for our deepest and most meaningful
relationships – something the rest of you take for granted, perhaps. Note that this is not “marrying”, but
“blessing”, though it should be marriage.
Those of you who are married know
that one of the abiding, perhaps in the end the chiefest aspect of marriage, is
that through a successful marriage we learn what unconditional love is. We grow in love and understanding, and we
become better human beings because of that “other” who is always present, and
who makes us want to be better people than we are. Marriage is life in greater
abundance. My marriage with my partner
Chris brought me growth and joy, and brought me back into the church in
gratitude. But the bishops have decided
that this is not worthy of a blessing, although we bless our pets and have even
blessed, as Bishop Spong has pointed out, cruise missiles. We will not bless the most enriching and
joyful experience of a person’s life, one that brings us so much closer to God.
It is the old controversy over who shall be included in
Christ’s Church. It is much like
denying women the priesthood or indeed denying women priests the opportunity to
serve God as bishops, and it is brought to you by the same thinking. It is an exclusion based on identity.
Gay people are as God made us. Homosexuality has been observed in at least 450 species, and that
includes everything from courting to mating, from raising the young to lifelong
partnerships. Homosexuality was dropped from the American
Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders in 1972, and an increasing
body of research indicates strongly, if as yet inconclusively, that
homosexuality is, indeed inherent in a small but uncertain percentage of the population.
(The APA has issued strong warnings against so-called “conversion” or
Let me digress further, for just a moment. There are some 620 purity laws in the Old
Testament which prohibit everything from eating pork to including eunuchs in
the congregation. Christians follow
the example of Jesus, who ate with all manner of people and held the despised
and excluded Samaritan up as our example; and we follow the example of Paul,
who reached out, against much opposition, to the Gentiles; and of Philip, who
baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. Seeing
all this in-bringing as the Christian way, we no longer penalize or exclude on
the basis of the holiness code. Yet
some seem fixated on just seven verses throughout the entire Bible which seem
to exclude homosexuals.
These verses are worth examining, though I freely admit that
what follows is a vast oversimplification:
The Old Testament speaks of homosexual actions as “toevah”
(הּכּﬠוּתּ) a word which is never used in the
context of something intrinsically evil such as rape or murder, but rather in
reference to something ritually unclean like eating pork. Similarly, Paul uses two words which have
been assumed to refer to homosexuality: one is “malakos” (μαλκός),
a word which is usually used meaning “soft” or “wanting self control”, that is,
“promiscuous”. The word is never used
in Greek to mean gay people, and Paul often uses it to describe heterosexual
activity. The other word is
a very rare word which the best evidence suggests strongly did not connote
homosexuality to Paul or his contemporaries.
Even the word “homosexual” is a neologism, first used in German in about 1875,
and in English only after 1892.
In other words, the Bible does not speak of what we today understand as
homosexual orientation with life-long, committed same-sex unions. As he often does, God is asking us to think
and to make adult decisions: “Truly, I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind on
earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall
be loosed in heaven.” And “Let them go! For if their purpose or
activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not
be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
But back to the current situation: a resounding, present no
to honest and open gay bishops and another no to blessing same-sex
relationships - and all clothed in a gratuitously insulting bleat at the end of
the statement: “We call for unequivocal and active
commitment to the civil rights, safety, and dignity of gay and lesbian
bishops of the Episcopal Church have decided that unity is more important than
justice. They have bent their collective knee to the will of the bullies and
agreed to forget a prophetic vision of justice and inclusion - until the
bullies agree with it.
prophets of the Hebrew scriptures would have been appalled. For all the
high-sounding rhetoric about how much they value gay people, the church has
purchased a tenuous peace by excluding the outsider, and the GLBT community has been told, yet again, to wait for justice
anyone see anything encouraging in this, that is, encouraging to LGBT people?
Is there a place for LGBT people in the Episcopal Church? I confess to you that I do not know whether
it is possible for me to remain in the Episcopal Church, where I am clearly a
The Old Testament lesson for today, from the minor prophet Habakkuk seems
“How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not
listen? Or cry out to you, Violence! but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do
you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife,
and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never
Will anyone deny that
people who are disposed to violence find encouragement when a group is denied
its full humanity? In denying full
inclusion to gay people, the bishops give comfort to the haters by
demonstrating that gay people are not fully human, not worthy to be part of the
communion, do not have access to all the sacraments. We have nothing to teach, and our unions are not worth a
blessing. Matthew Shepard hangs on that
fence still, alone, in the cold.
And, as happens when
appeasement is resorted to, no one is pleased.
At home, the ultra-conservatives will leave no matter what
is done, and it is a hard truth that the sooner they leave, the better for
everyone – although we should try hard to find some way that they might go with our blessing, for
disagreeing with love is the true Anglican
way, and we are under a new commandment, which is to love one another.
Other conservatives will
stay, to everyone’s benefit, although some things will trouble them, just as
some things trouble the more liberal.
But we believe, as we must, that our real business here is to come to
Christ’s table together, and that to refuse to do so is a sin against the Holy
Here we come to the Epistle
for today: “God has not given us the
spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” I
believe this is true: as a friend writes to me: “Eventually, I feel, it is the rank and
file that will bring us through this. Many, if not most, are not about to
let down the GLBTs… because you're right: this is not justice.”
The work of the church – Christ’s work in the world - is not
carried out by bishops or committees or those who write reports. It is carried
out by communities of Christians who come together in love and charity and as
much mutual forbearance as they can muster through prayer and humility. By congregations. By you.
Eight years ago I left the
church where I had been attending since the 7th Grade. The men’s group passed a resolution that
they did not want to worship with “that kind of people,” our priest announced
from the pulpit that discussion of same-sex unions was over so long as he was
rector, and people audibly whispered behind my mother’s back. We found our way here, and you welcomed
us. Here at Trinity we found the sort
of community where we come together not, perhaps, always in agreement, but in
mutual respect and charity, to take the bread and the wine together. My father’s funeral service was held here,
my partner’s ashes are buried outside in the memorial garden where I hope mine
will join his, and we celebrated my mother’s life here when she, in her turn,
died. You made us welcome, and this is
my place, just as it is yours. Our
In his play Faust, Goethe puts in the mouth of the devil
a chilling self definition: “Ich bin der
Geist, der stets verneint.” “I am the spirit that eternally
denies.” I believe he meant the spirit
that eternally denies us the things that bring us life in greater abundance,
and what this means to Christians is the humility to let Grace happen in all
Let me leave you with four
Let me leave you by asking
for advice, if you care to give it, and by asking all of you for your prayers
as the Episcopal church apparently lurches away from the courage and the
prophetic vision of justice it had for a short while.
Let me leave you with this:
we are God’s people. We learn, we
expand our understanding of humanity, and our compassion, and we say, “Come in,
and share the blessing.”
Let me leave you by saying that I am not in complete
confusion. My faith does not
stumble. I believe that, “Neither
death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things
present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature,
shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our
Lord." I may question my place in the Episcopal
Church, but I cannot question my place in the congregation of Christians if I
And let me leave you with this: perfect love casts out fear – fear; not compassion, not intelligence, not the duty to listen, not
the God-given humility to learn. It is
our job to love one another, that is the New Commandment.
If we can
just learn that one thing, Matthew Shepard will not hang forever on that fence.
Heavenly Father, who are the Author of all Mercy, and who gave us a New
Commandment through your Son Jesus Christ to love one another; we pray for
the soul of your servant Matthew Sheppard, and for all who have
suffered because of prejudice and ignorance; we ask for your
forgiveness when we have hated; and for your divine help in learning to do the
hard work of loving all mankind. Though
Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.
Reading & Bibliography
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
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
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.
John Shelby Spong, Here I
Stand – My struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality,.
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.