The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Tolliver preached the following sermon at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2000.
Our text today is Mark 12:28-31. It reads as follows: “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’”
I shall begin this sermon by describing three real-life situations and asking you to silently respond to the question I pose at the end of each of the descriptions.
Number one: Beatrice suffered a stroke four years ago, and is institutionalized, a “vegetable,” but alive. Two years ago, her husband, Sam, met a widow, Mary Jane, with whom he now lives in a committed relationship. Should the Church provide a rite to bless this relationship?
Number two: Bob and Sylvia are both widowed. They have formed a life-long committed relationship and cohabit. For various financial reasons, they do not have the option under current government and pension rules to marry in what the State would consider a legal marriage. Would it be an act of Christian love to allow them the dignity of having a blessing of their relationship by the Church?
Number Three: Beth and Julia have been living in a committed monogamous relationship for eight years. They have adopted two children who bear both of their last names. Since they are a same-sex couple, should the Church bless their relationship?
During the recent 73rd General Convention of the Episcopal Church, The House of Deputies, with the House of Bishops concurring, passed a carefully nuanced resolution consisting of seven resolves that, while acknowledging the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage, recognized that faithful persons live in committed relationships without marriage and that the Church must provide a safe and just structure in which all can utilize their gifts and creative energies for mission. The resolution also states that the Church expects for all of its members who are living in relationships that these be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication and the holy love, which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.
The House of Deputies narrowly defeated an eighth resolve that would set in motion the preparation of rites “by means of which the Church may express support” for relationships of “mutuality and fidelity other than marriage.” An effort by the bishops to re-introduce the eighth resolve, defeated earlier by the Deputies, failed by a vote of 85-63.
Although the resolution clearly is intended to refer also to heterosexual couples that are living in committed relationships outside of marriage, the debate in both houses focused exclusively on homosexual couples living in committed relationships.
In response to the votes, Bishop Howe of the Diocese of Central Florida stated, “This church is not in the business of endorsing promiscuous behavior or any sexual relationship that demeans persons. With the defeat of the 8th resolve, it is equally obvious that the national Church is not in the business of supporting relationships which are characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God unless those marriages are heterosexual marriages.”
Offering another perspective, Bishop William Swing of the Diocese of California said to the bishops, “There isn’t a bishop in this house who doesn’t know where we’ll be in ten years.”
How will these resolutions be implemented in the life of the Church? In typical Anglican fashion, one could conclude that local option is alive and well. That means that each diocese will individually decide how it will respond to the resolution.
Those resolves clearly acknowledge that Church members are living in committed relationships of integrity outside the traditional definition of marriage. Several bishops stated that this was all they needed to move forward in implementing local options on blessing of same-sex unions in their dioceses. One convention attendee stated, “But for those of us who hoped to see the Church renounce the hypocrisy that allows us to admit this reality of God’s work in our midst without supporting it in our formal liturgies, it was a sad day.”
Those persons who vehemently oppose the Church’s developing rites for the blessing of same-sex relationships usually do so by quoting certain Old and New Testament scriptures.
For example, Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” and Leviticus 20:13 reads, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” The statements are clear, but the context and application are not. They are included in a litany of prohibitions that appear in The Holiness Code contained in Leviticus. It is clear that this so called Holiness Code is designed to provide a standard of moral behavior that will distinguish the Jews from the Canaanites, whose land they have been given by God. The price of the land, as it were, is a new standard of behavior. The Jews are not to worship the Canaanite god Molech, nor to adopt any of the practices of the people who do. The sentence to be carried out when this Holiness Code is violated is death; Children who curse their parents are to be put to death. The sentence for adultery for both parties is death. The punishment for bestiality is death. These rules are designed for a very particular purpose and in a very particular setting. Their purpose is nation building; their setting is the entry into a promised but very foreign land. These are fundamental laws for the formation of a frontier community.
In addition to honoring one’s parents and keeping the Sabbath, showing appropriate hospitality and abstaining from idol worship, the people are forbidden to permit cattle inbreeding, or to sow fields with two kinds of seed, or to wear garments made of two different kinds of materials. Fruit trees may not be harvested until the fifth year, and the kosher laws must be kept. Round haircuts are forbidden, as are tattoos, and consultations with mediums and wizards. A man may not have sexual relations with his wife while she menstruates.
To what extent can Christians be said to be bound by these rules of the Holiness Code when even Saint Paul, himself a Jew and an heir of this very code, says that the Gentiles, that is, the non-Jewish Christians, have the gift of the Holy Spirit without the necessity of the Law of Israel?
For Jesus and Saint Paul, the ritual purity of which Leviticus speaks with such passionate detail is irrelevant; they are both concerned with purity of heart. As historian John Boswell has pointed out in his 1980 study, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, that a distinction is made between what is ritually impure and what is intrinsically wrong. Homosexuality in Leviticus is condemned as ritually impure, the key to this conclusion being the fact that the word abomination does not usually describe something intrinsically evil, such as rape or theft, but something that is ritually impure, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation. As abomination is by definition what the Gentiles do, but that in and of itself is not necessarily evil or a violation of the Commandments. Thus homosexuality is an abomination in Leviticus not because it is inherently evil but because the Gentiles do it, and it is therefore ritually impure.
When Christians ignore most of the Holiness Code and regard its precepts as irrelevant to a New Testament understanding of purity of heart, and yet cite the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality as the basis of their own moral position on that subject, one is led to wonder what is behind the adoption of this prohibition and the casting away of the others.
Those who object to the full inclusion of homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals in the life of the Church say they do so because of “the clear teaching of Scripture.” However, both those who support full inclusion and those who condemn homosexuals have used “selectivity” in their use of Scriptures. Truthfully, all thoughtful people are selective to some extent. Rarely do we care about the blending of two different fibers in a piece of material or the consumption of pork, though Scripture forbids them; nor do we stone to death our children when they are disobedient, even though Scripture commands it. The real question, which divides us, is: what are the criteria for our selectivity?
For example, Christians came to realize that slavery was evil, not because Scripture said so, which it does not. Scripture says, “Slaves be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5).
Many Christians have come to believe that women are intended by God to assume every role in the Church, not because Scripture says so, which it does not. Scriptures says, “As in all the church of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (I Corinthians 14:34-35). Again, Scripture says, “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.” (I Timothy 2:11-12).
The Church has taken a more compassionate attitude toward divorced persons, not because Scripture says so, because it doesn’t. Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12). St. Paul says, “To the married I give this command, not I, but the Lord: A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (I Corinthians 7:10,11).
In seeking to lead the Church into a new understanding on the issue of human sexuality a document titled, Holy Relationships and The Authority of Scripture, prepared by the Diocese of California, states, “Every declaration of moral or Christian behavior must be tested against Jesus’ insistence on the primacy of the commandment to love God and neighbor. We publicly acknowledge that homosexuals and bisexuals have been and continue to be an intrinsic part of our community. We feel remorse and contrition that these members of our community have not always been acknowledged and welcomed, and we grieve that this is still the case in many places within the Anglican Communion. While Jesus challenged specific harmful actions, especially those taken from a position of power, we find no evidence that he condemned any class of people because of their sexual orientation.”
I close this sermon by sharing the following words preached by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Senior Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, in a sermon he titled, “Good News for Homosexuals.”
He states, “Does the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, have anything to say to persons who are homosexual and to family members of persons who are homosexual? Or does the Word of God limit itself to those persons who are heterosexual?
“I have been the ministerial outcast among many of my colleagues for some fifteen years because I refuse to believe that my God loves only some of his world. My Bible does not say, “For God so loved some of the world---or most of the world---that he gave his only begotten Son that any heterosexual who believes in him…” My Bible says all the world and whosoever---not those I like. Whosoever---not those who are like me. Whosoever. I refuse to limit my God, to lock God into my cultural understandings because culture is fickled. And culture is often wrong. Culture was wrong about slavery. Culture was wrong about women. Culture was wrong about Africans and Indians, and culture was wrong about Christ. I refuse to limit my God, to lock God into little cultural prisons, no matter how comfortable those prisons may feel. I refuse to leave my brain at the door when I come into God’s presence to worship or when I read God’s Word. And because I refuse, I have been the pariah among many of my clergy colleagues who somehow see me as defective or not quite saved because I won’t join them in their homophobic gay bashing and misquoting of Scripture.
“I got into a heated argument with a preacher one Sunday morning as I was preparing for worship service. He asked what I was preaching about during Family Month, and I gave him all eight sermon topics in this book. And when he heard the last two topics, ‘Good News for Homosexuals’ at 8:00AM service and ‘Good News for Single Folks at 11AM, he said, ‘I’ll be praying for you at eleven, Reverend.’ I asked, ‘Why only at eleven?’ He said, ‘You know I have a problem with those homosexuals.’ And I fired back, ‘Yeah, I know. I just wonder why you don’t have a problem with being married and sleeping with women other than your wife.’”
The relevant question being grappled with throughout this Church at this moment in history is what are the appropriate Christian expectations placed upon those permanent, monogamous, faithful, intimate relationships within which the sexual act takes place, whether the relationship is heterosexual or homosexual. Have same-sex relationships the same potential for sacramental meaning and power as heterosexual relationships? The response to that question is contained in the words of a familiar song, “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.” AMEN.
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