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Based on the Lectionary readings for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration Sunday):
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

2004 February 22
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Isn't Marriage Gay?

Last week I began my meditation with a sonnet from Shakespeare. This week I offer a prayer, written around 400 AD, that is 1600 years ago. It is a marvelous prayer for love.

O Lord our God, who didst grant unto us all those things necessary for salvation and who didst bid us to love one another and forgive each other our failings, bless and consecrate, kind Lord and lover of good, these thy servants who love each other with a love of the spirit and have come into this thy holy church to be blessed and consecrated. Grant unto them unashamed fidelity (and) sincere love, and as Thou didst vouchsafe unto thy holy disciples and apostles thy peace and love, bestow (them) also on these, O Christ our God, affording them all those things needed for salvation and life eternal. For thou art the light (and) the truth and thine is the glory. (Amen)

In this prayer is much of the unsettling content of our current debate regarding marriage in the Commonwealth. For this is a prayer from a same-sex wedding ceremony used regularly for seven hundred years and still around today. These weddings are a fact from the past and prospect for the future that unsettles and troubles many people. In this prayer is also the resource for debate's resolution and faith's restoration. For this is a prayer that proclaims dependence upon God and lists God's central values: love, light, truth, peace, and forgiveness. This is a prayer that gives us a way to live.

In order to continue our conversation about the history of marriage, which was discussed last week, today I want to see how our scriptures of transformation and transfiguration speak to communities and a culture immersed in an examination of gay marriage. I want to consider some history and encourage some ministry regarding the moment and Back to topthe call that embraces us. And I want to reclaim a true prayer together.

This whole discussion of marriage does not come to us in an orderly way, and I can't organize it easily myself. In fact, historian John Boswell says we find great disorder throughout this examination. Indeed, he argues strenuously that for many hundreds of years, gay and lesbian persons have been culture's despised exiles and that that opinion did not originate in scripture. That is, cultural anti-gay sentiments have arisen from a source other than our Bible, then they get read into it: an odd order. Otherwise, he says, we would be consumed with greed, hypocrisy, or even skin diseases, all of which are Biblically more condemned than is homosexuality. Yet he turns early to the scriptures as a resource for people of faith. For when we know our history it is not misused with our unwitting consent.

Let me take a moment to address that task. Let me speak of the Bible, of Jesus' words, of the Church's record, and then of our own visions and proclamations. In all this I can't be comprehensive, but I'll do what I can.

There are three primary texts in our Bible cited as proof that homosexuality is condemned. They are, the story of Sodom, the prohibitions of Leviticus, and the citation at the beginning of Paul's letter to the Romans. Let's take them in order. Five sources within the Bible, including the words of Jesus in Matthew, say that the issue in Sodom was inhospitality, pride, and idleness. You can read the citations yourselves and see that they are not confusing. It was much later in history that Sodom became a synonym for some evil. But fundamentally its story is not about homosexuality.

Second, Leviticus calls certain acts toevah, or an abomination. They were therefore ritually, not morally, unclean. The modern faithful who cite them should also condemn eating pork, shellfish, rabbit, and the hybridization of animals among other things. And we don't do that. Because at the Council of Jerusalem, reported in the Bible, all these prohibitions were put aside for Christians. New Testament believers simply don't hold to the Levitical cleanliness code.

Then there is Paul. What Paul offers in Romans is a general condemnation of infidelity -- faithlessness -- with lists and examples. He has a theological concern and says, in fact, heterosexual men shouldn't give up their identity in homosexual practice, just as we shouldn't give up the One God for alternate gods. He could, but does not, condemn gays or lesbians. Back to topInstead he drops the topic after one phrase in a sixteen-chapter book.

Walter Wink says that in the same way that you can construct a defense of slavery from the Bible, you can create a condemnation of gays. But it is a tenuous creation and overlooks the guiding principles of the new covenant such as love of God, neighbor, self, and enemy. Personally, professionally, it is a weak construct and as many scholars have pointed out, at its very best it addresses gays but it never addresses lesbians. Does this silence indicate approval? Or is this the silliness of tenuous arguments stripped of their roots and purposes? Personally I return to the love ethic, as does Wink, who says if we go to the Bible for insight here the real question posed is, "How can I love my homosexual neighbor?"

So what does Jesus say? Well, one school of thought says "nothing." He never uses a word clearly about gays or lesbians. Yet some scholars wonder about a curious reference made in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, call no one raca or you will be sent to the court. Raca is usually translated "fool," but that doesn't make much sense. Some prestigious translators think it is an Aramaic slang term for gays. If they are right, then Jesus did say something. He said you're in trouble if you denigrate gays. Yet there is scholarly confusion over this ancient word.

So what does the Church say? Well, the answer here takes volumes. As we now know, before there was a heterosexual liturgy for church weddings, there was a same sex liturgy. Why didn't we all learn this in Church School? I don't know. I think it falls in the same category of what I didn't learn about American Church history, the influence of Babylonian culture on Hebrew culture, or the relationship between David and Jonathan. It just didn't get studied and didn't get taught. But it was in use from Mt. Sinai's monastery to the Vatican to Greece, Paris, and Ireland: across the Christian world. And it was grounded in the Greek and Roman opinion that masculinity, bravery, and honor were strengthened by male love, especially in the army and military pursuits, as much reported by Plutarch, Aristotle, Virgil, and many others. A same sex union celebrated strength for country and community, once upon a time, even in Church.

But the official opinion of the Church changed over the centuries. As heterosexual marriage was taken into the sanctuary in the twelfth century, child bearing and monogamy came to be enshrined as values. Roman priests could no longer marry, property issues took on new meaning, and a cultural condemnation took over where tolerance once had reigned.

Today, obviously, you can find one wing of Christendom that articulates a strict prohibition on any same sex activity and another that respects and embraces the diversity of identities that it believes are the product of God's creation. I try to understand and respect the strict prohibitions, but I cannot honorably represent them. You will have to ask church friends from elsewhere better to explain them, Back to topeven while knowing that the membership of every church is divided in its social and theological opinion.

So where are we today? Our entire Church is informed and inspired by the scriptures this morning. Luke calls us to another mountaintop. Jesus goes there to pray, along with Peter, James, and John. And just when they think they will get some rest, they encounter two dead men: Moses and Elijah. The two ancestors speak of Jesus' Exodus, which is his guidance of those in bondage to a land of freedom, like the Hebrews leaving Egypt. But Peter and James and John fall asleep and miss this point. So God speaks loudly, saying "This is my son, listen to him!" Which is certainly clear enough even for the tired.

Today Paul is having a conversation with folks who don't necessarily like everything that he says. Still, he says this: hope about the future makes us bold. As we speak, we are changing into the likeness of Christ. And, while laws kill us, the Spirit gives us life. That word "change" that he uses is really transformation, so Paul is calling for a transformation to a Christ-like nature that we can boldly pursue.

How does all that translate into our moment here, now, today? How does all this guide us who live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at this juncture of history? Well, again, those are not simple questions. But let me say how it guides me.

The summer I graduated from divinity school, a twenty-three year old man named Charlie Howard was killed by three teenagers in Bangor, Maine for being gay. He and a friend were leaving a young adult group at a church when the teens stopped them on a bridge, beat up Charlie, and then threw him in the water below. They drove off laughing. My roommate in divinity school was gay, friends from college and childhood were gay, as were new professional colleagues. And that summer twenty years ago we were all reminded that violence against particular identities is not restricted to blacks or women or foreigners, but sometimes it was the response to your sexual identity, even in the quiet small towns of Maine.

That summer and in the years since I realized just how much I didn't know about the experience of gay and lesbian persons, and I began to study. As you know, Back to topI worked as a political advocate for these causes in Maine, and I experienced some threats myself.

With my own grounding in the scriptures and my love for God and God's Church, I've never been able to understand, as Boswell says, why there is so much concern about another person's sexual identity. Why is there so much condemnation? As a single man for thirty-eight years, no one else's marriage, parenthood, single-hood, or personal behavior endangered or radically changed me in any way. As a married person these last nine years, I feel similarly un-threatened by mature and loving relationships of any type that take place all around me. As Walter Wink says, the central Christian ethic is that all our relationships express the integrity of our relationship with God. That is our guidance; little more and no less.

Now, as a pastor in Massachusetts I am touched by the wonder and the opportunity of our moment, even as I am aware that there are struggles and even injuries ahead. I am touched because the progress of our nation and the progress of Christ's Church have always been associated with the embrace and inclusion of additional groups that have always been around. Blacks, Native Americans, women, the Irish, and even in the midst of anguish these past years American Muslims, for example. Jesus left a model and a challenge of embracing those whom his culture ignored. Children, women, foreigners like Samaritans, and then finally us: Gentiles. I cannot believe that the progress of our nation or the progress of our faith is complete. I do not believe that God is done with us and saying, "Stop." I do not know where yet we may be called, and I do not know that I am ready for all those places, but I can only claim the integrity of my faith if my ears are open and my heart is fair. In this moment I believe we are called to support progress in inclusiveness.

Two weeks ago you gave me an enormous gift as a pastor. You voted, which is our highest order of expression and decision, to endorse the Supreme Court opinion regarding gay and lesbian marriage. I cannot express how little I expected that and how powerful it is to me in conducting my ministry to say, yes, we have minority opinions here too which deserve respect, but we are emboldened to minister to this moment even as it takes us to unexpected places. Back to topRelying upon God, we can do this.

In the months ahead, if we are honest to this vote, we may be ridiculed. We may experience attack. We may make mistakes. But we will do so endeavoring to share something that is not ours anyway: the message of God in Christ that love is our central ethic and that we don't choose our acts of ministry because they are easy but because they are our best prayerful understanding of God's command.

On the one hand the months ahead may go by with us wondering what the fuss was all about as we continue to embrace, include, bless, and yes consecrate God's children who come here to God's house. On the other hand, we may look back at these days and note them on the list of our most important historical events. The days when doors were opened, mountaintops were visited, those in bondage traveled to a new location, and those afraid were embraced to heal a broken heart.

The marriage prayer from the fourth century that I read before includes a wonderful phrase amidst its poetry. It speaks of "unashamed fidelity." That's what we all want, isn't it? Heterosexuals who are not ashamed to be faithful to each other. Gays and lesbians who can be public about their love and commitment. Christians who can say, this is my God, this is God's Messiah, and these are his words: "Love one another." Which is all part of unashamed fidelity.

This isn't an orderly moment in history or theology. It is new birth. It is transformation: transfiguration, so don't fall asleep. It is the union of events that we could not have imagined. And we are in the midst of it together. What a blessing. What a sacred time. What a profound ministry. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder. Amen.Back to top

Copyright 2004 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20040222.htm

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