Polity & Structure
House of Deputies
House of Bishops
Provinces and dioceses of the Anglican Communion
Data & Analysis
Reports & Events
Tools & Services
News flashes, Announcements
software for writers
377 S. Harrison Street, 12D
East Orange, NJ 07018
Phone: 973-395-1068 h
Married February 2, 1974
A sermon by Canon John Rettger
29 June 2008
St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom. 6.23
In my family when I was growing up there were things that you didn’t talk about any more than absolutely necessary, and the principal thing was sex. There were euphemisms for some bodily functions, and there were some crossover words that were acceptable in poetry or in a medical context but were better unspoken in ordinary conversation. And maybe my mother would have been comfortable walking through Loring Park today, sampling the food and making conversation. But my father would not. He never spoke with me about human reproduction. And my mother, who prided herself on not being a Victorian or a prude, never actually talked much about sex either. I can’t help wondering how my parents would react to Pride weekend. We never talked about the Stonewall riots 40 years ago, when gay folk refused to be intimidated by the police raids on bars in Greenwich Village. My parents certainly would have opposed police harassment of any kind. But in 1978 when I announced that Bishop Robert Anderson would be appointing me to a new part-time job as Chaplain to Integrity/Twin Cities, a ministry with gay and lesbian folk in the Episcopal Church - they were not enthusiastic.
Silence and secrecy send very powerful messages as you know, especially if it is a cultural secrecy that goes all the way back to Genesis. Adam and Eve may be naked in the banner hanging in the choir hall, but in the Bible story (you remember) they ate forbidden fruit, they realized their nakedness, they hid their shame with clothing. And St. Paul wrote that it was through their sin - and I think he meant the sin of sex - that death came into the world (Rom 5:12), and today we heard that the wages of sin is death. Fast forward a few years and we have the great theologian St. Augustine expanding on Paul and teaching that all sex - in marriage or otherwise - is shameful.
St. Paul repeatedly warned his readers about the damage that sex can do to their relationship to God. Some of his choice passages we do not read in church because they are either very difficult to interpret or very easy to interpret, depending on your point of view. Some of them are about heterosexual sex, a few are about homosexual sex, and sometimes St. Paul seems to say that even marriage is merely a remedy for fornication, that he would rather people avoid sex altogether, since after all the Lord is coming soon so why bother? But if you must, it is better to marry than to burn.
Let me give you a little background. In today’s epistle, Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, people he has never met. But they may have heard rumors about his preaching. Some, maybe many, of them may actually be suspicious of him. “He is preaching and starting churches,” we can imagine them saying, “and he is converting not only Jews but also Gentiles. So far, so good. But: what is he telling them? Is he saying that keeping the law - the commandments and ordinances of Scripture - is no longer required for salvation? Is he saying that we live under grace now and don’t need to turn from sin? Could he even be saying that people should sin more so that grace may abound?” So this is a letter of introduction, a statement of his teachings. Should anyone ask: Should we sin yet more, that grace may abound? his answer is No, not at all. Paul is not counselling lawlessness. In fact he has long lists of sins. He complains about those who commit “shameless acts” and points at those who “degrade their bodies.” Above all he sees sin as universal, a result of the fall of our first parents in eating the forbidden fruit.
In our reading today, Paul warns about sin exercising dominion in your bodies, making you obey their passions. The word passions (epithumia) in Paul almost always means lust or sexual desire. We will not see that text on any of the banners in Loring Park on Pride weekend. But you will not hear it read in the Celebration and Blessing of a marriage of one man and one woman either; usually couples prefer I Corinthians 13, which doesn’t have anything to do with weddings. Actually you won’t hear very much about Paul’s theology of sexuality anywhere. There are fewer priestly and monastic vocations - and the Shakers haven’t made a comeback yet. Someday Paul’s warnings about passion will be fashionable again, I suppose, but not yet.
Note that Paul does not point the finger at a certain group of people or people with a certain sexual orientation when he talks about sin. In fact, the bottom line is, he talks about you and me. All have sinned he says plainly (3:23) and come short of the glory of God. So to those who have looked at Romans and interpreted it to shame and ostracize their gay lesbian bisexual and trans members, I say that hypocrisy and self-righteousness will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. And to anyone, conservative or liberal, who says that it is not possible to be gay and Christian, I would say that over the years the people who have taught me the most by word and example, the people I have experienced as most genuine and earnest in their faith - seminary professors, parishioners, bishops and colleagues - those who have had kindness and compassion far beyond my own, those who have been wise and creative in the midst of their mixed feelings about themselves and the hurt of homophobia, those who have been the most loving, have been my brothers and sisters in Christ who happen to be gay or lesbian.
Paul’s is not the only voice in the Bible. If there is shame in sex to be found in some of the Bible, in other places it is a gift of God. One might even say a commandment of God, as when God tells humankind to reproduce in Gen. 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply.”The psalmist thanks God for children that are like olive branches around the table - and surely she or he must have known where they came from. God is actively engaged in miraculous births - at the AGO Evensong this week we heard about Hannah and Elizabeth, women who had waited long to be mothers, and whose pregnancy was seen to be arranged by God.
And in a few moments we will say that Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit...became incarnate from the Virgin Mary. Thus creedal orthodoxy instructs us to believe that God, far from being distant from Jesus’ conception, accomplishes the divine purpose by the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing. The incarnation of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ...made very Man in the substance of the Virgin Mary, is surely an assurance that all God’s children are worth the trouble. None are outcast. All may be brought to the font and the table. You and I, sinners yet aquitted: all may receive the gift.
This site has been accessed times since February 14, 1996.
Statistics courtesy of WebCounter.