[A sermon for the Sunday we discussed sexual orientation and the church. Many thanks to those who read and gave feedback in the development of this sermon.]
There is a joke in which a young man was convicted of a crime and sent to prison. The first night there he experiences a strange sort of ritual. Lying there as the inmates settle down for the night there is a short period of silence when suddenly he hears someone from another cell shout eleven to which everyone bursts into laughter. A little while later he hears twenty-two called out from a different cell. There is some snickering that can be heard. This activity went on for some time before the inmates finally settled down for the night. The next day the man finds out that most of inmates have been in prison so long that they have developed a catalogue for each joke and just have to call out the number instead of telling it.
Theologian Mark Jordan reminds his readers of this joke when he begins to address how the church has gone about discussing the topic of homosexuality. The arguments and positions have become developed, clarified, and articulated. Jordan wonders if it at this point it wouldn’t be easier to simply number the current catalogue of how the church has responded. And the reality is that many writers have essentially created such a catalogue. There are variations on the catalogue but I think it is fair to outline them with the following;
1. Divine Command – This position then has its own catalogue of anywhere between one and about seven Bible verses that are appealed to in demonstrating God’s opposition to homosexual sexual relationships. And within that field there is yet of another sub-category which catalogues differing interpretations over what these passages mean.
2. Natural Order – This position works primarily from the Genesis account citing Adam and Eve and appeals to the way procreation happens as a justification for a particular relationship standard or guideline.
3. Spirit of the Law – This position has a catalogue of verses that demonstrate the way God has called people beyond mechanical adherence to the letter of the law. These verses call people to larger vision or Spirit of God’s love, mercy, and justice. (Love your neighbour; I desire mercy not sacrifice; the fruit of the Spirit; Peter being told not to call unclean what God has made clean).
4. Ongoing Human Understanding – The church has historically shown itself resistant and blinded to particular understandings and expressions that were simply wrong. The earth is not the center of the universe nor is 6000 years old. So here a catalogue of scientific, anthropological, and philosophical citations are offered to help us understand the situation. A significant expression on this issue is that non-heterosexual expressions and understandings hardly resemble that of the ancient world making it difficult to compare them.
This sort of classification can run the risk of over-simplifying the matter but I am guessing that for many people engaged in these conversations this image rings all too true. We begin to hear a particular position and we already know where it is going and where it will end. These categories also show why this topic has been divisive. Depending on how much weight you give a particular approach it will lead you in a particular path. And it would seem that choosing one path will necessarily bring you into conflict with another path. So while Jordan may have wanted to bring a little humour into this situation he quickly acknowledges the more serious reality of the analogy, namely that the image of a church is a prison.
Stepping back to look at the approaches the church has taken I began to wonder what I could add to this conversation. Is there some key to unlock all the cells we are shouting numbers from? Drawing on my sermon from a few weeks ago I am still left convinced wherever you find yourself in this conversation we as a church remain both free and responsible in how we will move forward. So how do we take responsibility and live into that freedom? It is not possible for me to responsibly give attention and address all the approaches outlined above. Instead I want to reflect on a biblical and theological theme that I have not seen explored in the conversation in the hopes that it can help shed more light on how we as a church can understand and express ourselves in relation to non-heterosexual relationships.
When people talk about the idea of God’s intention or ideal for the world, what is sometimes called God’s natural order, it is common to hear the clever phrase that in the beginning God created Adam and Eve and not Adam Steve. But I want to point that such a comment is actually a sleight of hand trick, a diversion or distraction. This dismissive comment keeps us from returning to the simple words of the first two verses of the Bible. First we have the preface,
In beginning God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void
and then comes two powerful and parallel lines
darkness was covering the face of the deep,
God’s spirit was hovering over the face of the waters.
What is the significance of this image? Why bring it up here? I want to strongly suggest that the Bible is less interested in stating some perfect ideal or order that we are supposed to return to or live up to but is much more interested in showing the God who works in the midst of life; the God whose Spirit hovers over the deep drawing out life and dissolving death. In the beginning was not a place but a process; the living and life-giving God in relationship with the existence we are thrown into.
Shifting our perspective this way leads us to see a God that is less concerned about fitting everything into a so-called ‘natural order’. In Genesis chapter two we read that God creates Adam, just Adam. Apparently God is not concerned that Adam will not be able to procreate as we understand it. It is later on that God takes this human Adam and splits Adam in two (rib is far from an adequate translation) and from that material is enough to form male and female. Some have suggested that it is theologically appropriate to think that prior to this split Adam was transgendered, containing within one body the fullness of both genders, of humanity. But yes, this particular story does culminate in an image of the relationship between male and female as distinct persons. And this is important. Understanding gender difference and relationships is important, as we discussed last week, but we should not forget this is was not the beginning, this was one creation account of the God who hovers over the waters to create and make new.
So what else comes from these creating waters? In Genesis 13 and 14 the Hebrew people who were enslaved are being chased by the massive Egyptian army and find themselves hemmed in by the Red Sea. Here are a people with no natural means of survival. They face certain slaughter at the hands of the Egyptians or getting drowned in the sea. And what happens? Just like at creation wind rushes over the waters and dry land appears and the people cross over. This is a story of the creation of the people of Israel.
In the Hebrew Bible there are several stories about how God undoes creation and brings about new creation. This is Jonah getting submerged in the sea in order to be remade. It is Jeremiah reversing creation imagery to show the dismantling of Israel. It is Isaiah being undone in his encounter with God in the Temple. It is Ezekiel seeing the resurrection of valley of dry bones. Creation was not a single event but remained a work of God at different times and in different ways.
In the Gospel we have another creation story. In what scholars take to be the oldest account, the Gospel of Mark, there is no interest in giving account of some pure beginning for Jesus. The start of the story is already in the middle of story as John the Baptist is preaching. Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Jesus enters the waters. Jesus is submerged and symbolically dissolved in the deep. As Jesus emerges he is born again, re-created, the Spirit as the dove hovers over the waters and the voice of God speaks as at creation. It is worth noting the words spoken in this creation account. God says, this is my child my beloved, in him I am well pleased. What I have made is good. Theologically, for the church, this scene introduces us to the image of the fullness of God on earth, the fullness of creation.
And what comes of this creation? Jesus is also not concerned with privileging the so-called natural order. Jesus dissolved and re-ordered biological and kinship ties insisting instead on the priority of following the will of God. Male and female relationships of procreation are of course not bad but they must set in a subordinate role and there is no hint that this natural mode of procreation should be relied on in order to achieve God’s call to fill the earth.
And what is Jesus’s image of a wedding and marriage? A wedding it seems is not the promise of procreation but the setting of celebration. In one of his parables Jesus uses the wedding as an image of the Kingdom of God where the good and bad are gathered together and the people left out are the one’s too concerned with the proper ordering and maintenance of society. In another place when Jesus gets pushed on the finer points of marriage law he reminds the people that this same law is not applicable or does not function the same way in the resurrection. It would not be a stretch to say that Jesus has some unnatural ideas about relationships.
And the message and vision that came out of Jesus’s baptism also changed the Apostle Paul who was blinded, who was plunged into darkness before he emerged into the light. In the light of this encounter Paul began to see the body of Christ as a new space, a new way of relating in the world that did not always match current practices. According to Paul this space, the church, again did not rely on natural means for survival. Marriage and the family was again not rejected but was subordinated to the body of Christ. In many of his letters Paul just seems to be trying to keep up with how the Spirit is submerging old forms and re-configuring present expressions. What is the role of circumcision? How do we understand food offered to idols? How should a person who entered the church now relate to his or her spouse who has not? There are disagreements among apostles. Some old traditions are reaffirmed while offers are dissolved so that faithfulness can be re-shaped in keeping with the Gospel. In this tumultuous time it appeared difficult to keep pace with this creating God.
This strand of biblical imagery confronts the church with the possibility that attempts to preserve or recover an ideal or pure form of holiness, an original created order, is to miss the mark. Too many people have had to suffer by trying to achieve this type of holiness. This idea of holiness as being without spot or wrinkle has a long tradition in the Mennonite church as well. Too many families, too many individuals, and too many communities have suffered and caused suffering because they could not relate to an expression outside their ideals. People have been viewed and treated as a contamination, something to be rejected or even eradicated.
We have misunderstood our notion of holiness. There is no pure origin to return to. We are here in the midst of our families and our communities, as complicated as they can be, doing the best we can to be faithful. There are not enough laws to respond to every different scenario. Perhaps the question becomes how the church can turn towards a God whose Spirit hovers over the ferment and formless mixture of what life often feels like? Can we be formed in wisdom and courage by this Spirit to discern when to dissolve destructive patterns and when to call out new forms? Can we trust a God who holds a dogged belief that life can come from anywhere?
To be absolutely clear this is not some vague and ambiguous gesture, it is not a limp notion of tolerance or relativism. This is the difficult and discerning work of holding open a gathered space in which all are invited to follow the life of Jesus, to turn towards and be formed by the Spirit that calls out healing and restoration, to worship the God who is still creating. This space will indeed have boundaries but those boundaries will be based not on unattainable ideal but reflect how we are able to relate to one another. There will be an openness to re-configure our expression but an increasing sensitivity to how new and old forms lend themselves to abuse.
Reflecting on this image of God I could not help but think about the gay community and the individuals who have been systematically rejected from heterosexual culture. I began to think about the people who often had no access to the traditional means of spiritual support; a group that has suffered physical abuse and social alienation; a group often excluded from the protection and support of the law. This is a group that is often criticized for having no so-called natural means of continuation or advancement; a group told they had no future. Wave after wave crashed over this community until the waters rose sometimes unbearably high. Jean Paul Sartre says that homosexuality “is not the result of a prenatal choice, nor of glandular malformation, nor is it even the . . . determinate result of [family or social influences]: it is a way out such as the child discovers when she is about to suffocate.”
And try as we have from within the dominant culture to drown out this expression it continues to emerge. In spite of the waves of opposition that pushed against these individuals there have surfaced families who struggled together and discovered new understandings of what it means to love one another. Same-sex couples joined in solidarity to simply have their love acknowledged as such. And what may be most miraculous are the non-straight individuals who have stuck with the church. In the deluge of our rejection an Ark has remained adrift in those waters reminding us that loving and following Jesus may not look the way we have anticipated it. And in all this I have come to the need to confess that I was part of the church that did not have eyes to see these expressions of beauty, love, and faithfulness. To see that God was at work calling out life against the odds.
We are not always in deep waters and we cannot always remain there. But right now the larger church is in such waters when it comes to how we understand and relate to non-straight expressions. It is my hope that we can see the forms of life that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, two-spirited, and queer individuals and couples have drawn out (and repent from flooding these waters over them). It is my hope that from within these waters the church can move towards public expressions of theology and practice that demonstrate our welcome and affirmation of non-straight individuals and couples who seek to follow Jesus. The theologian Catherine Keller, who greatly influenced my thinking for this sermon, says that “to love is to bear with the chaos. Not to like it or to foster it but to recognize there the unformed future.” In some ways this is a re-statement of our baptismal commitment as Christians, that is, to be willing to enter and be submerged in the waters when necessary, to allow the sins that bring death to be dissolved so that we would be re-created and newly re-lated to each other, to wade in the water, knowing the one who hovers over us speaking the words that bring life, you are my child, my beloved in whom I am well pleased.