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Shall We Bless Homosexual Unions?

By Charles Rush

January 19, 1997

Matthew 23: 23-28 and John 7: 22-24

L a
st week I attended my second "Common Ground" conference. For 4 days and 4 nights pastors from 24 churches in New Jersey, half of them on the conservative end of the spectrum and half on the liberal end, held a dialogue on homosexuality and the churches. The object was not to change anyone’s mind. Rather, it was to develop ‘connective thinking’, the opposite of debate. We seek understanding not I win/you lose. Furthermore, we openly invite the Spirit to move amongst us. The process says that discussion is a good thing, that being together is an important value even though we seriously disagree.

       I stand before you today in that very same Spirit. I want to begin a discussion. I will freely share with you where I am and why. I am not interested in creating division, nor in telling you what we should do. I want to begin to answer the question ‘what are we going to do? The way here is not clear or unambiguous. It never is in the midst of things. We don’t feel we have enough information and thinking is harder work than most of us want to do anyhow.

       When I was teaching ethics at Rutgers University, the hardest thing was to get students to make up their minds. They could quote endlessly ‘Kant would say this, St. Paul would say that’. And I would retort ‘But what do you think’? That question was invariably followed by a long silence and an attempt to beg off the question. I would follow up by saying "I’m not asking you to commit the rest of your life to this answer, but today, with your limited knowledge and your confused mind, what do you think?" It is a frightening question.

       And it has been posed to me in the past few months. We are a tolerant congregation with lots of different people so it is not surprising. Two gay couples have come to me and asked ‘Reverend, will you bless our union’. Interestingly, I found myself acting like my students, the same expressionless gaze deer have staring into your headlights. Yet, a direct question deserves a direct answer and I am thankful that it was posed concretely in a pastoral situation rather than in the abstract like it is at our denominational gatherings where it has become an occasion for ribald debate.

       A couple of years ago I preached on this subject and went over some of the biblical texts and showed why they were not directly relevant to the issue. I will not rehearse that today though on another occasion we can come back to some of them. I have been moved lately by two comments I have heard. The first is a new book that will be coming out shortly in which a Presbyterian scholar went back and read through the debates overly slavery that were made in our country in the 1830’s. She concluded that the Southern Presbyterians were right in their arguments from scripture defending the institution of slavery and dead wrong on the issue. I am willing to bet that the same thing will be said 100 years from now about our present day debates over the role of homosexuals in the church. The second comment comes from Bill Coffin. He recently remarked "Most Christians use the bible the way a drunk uses a lamp post, for support rather than illumination." And then he went on to say "It’s time for Christians to admit that there is such a thing as biblical dead wood’. I guess when you retire you can finally say out loud what you have been thinking for years. And he is right. The world of the bible could not envision a world free of slavery, could not envision participatory democracy, could not envision women as co-equal creators, could not envision an evolutionary history, etc., etc.. There are some hints here and there in the teachings of Jesus and Paul that point in a direction "In Christ there is neither Slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek" but that is what they remain hints. So I do not go to the bible for answers to questions about matters such as these. Rather, I ask of it what it has to offer: The meaning of love, the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, grace, justice, mercy, humility, covenant, etc. This is the proper scope of biblical authority.

       Certainly Jesus understood this. The Pharisees were always asking him theological questions in the rabbinical tradition. We preachers are just like that in every generation. Jesus refused to engage on that level of discussion much of the time. "Look not on the outward appearance, for God looks upon the heart". Surely, part of the reason we need to be right is because we deeply need others to be wrong. I suspect that Jesus wouldn’t have even answered a general question like ‘Shall we bless homosexual unions?’ I suspect that he would turn our attention back to particular people.

       Two books have been important in shaping my thinking on the subject. John Money’s Gay, Straight, and In Between and Chandler Burr’s recent volume A Separate Creation . Both of the summarize the current state of research on psycho-sexual development. When the New York Times did a book review of Chandler Burr’s book, the reviewer simply said ‘you have to read this’ and ‘it is not what you think’. Suffice it to say that psycho-sexual development is phenomenally complex, particularly among humans. Both books agree that our sexual orientation is given along a spectrum. The vast majority of people are exclusively heterosexual. About 4-5% are exclusively homosexual and another percentage fall in between. What is significant to me is the 4-5% that are exclusively homosexual. John Money has remarked of this group that ‘it is no more possible to change an exclusively homosexual person to a heterosexual than it is to alter a heterosexual and make them into a homosexual.’

       Invariably, when I am at a conference on this subject there is some earnest Minister who tells of hearing a speaker who was converted to Christ and then stopped living a ‘homosexual lifestyle’. I am incredulous about these reports. I can only say that there is a difference between repression and cure. I have an article from the NYT from the late 80’s where the Chinese Medical community reported a cure for homosexuality. Apparently, they attributed the origins of homosexuality to the many cultural sins of Capitalist society which socialism would eradicate. Their subject was a young man who had seen Japanese movies and fallen in love with a Japanese movie star. Japan is a symbol of Capitalist society. The medical authorities did two things to ‘cure’ this young man. They showed him hours of pornography. And they showed him homosexual pornography with electrodes hooked to his genitalia and zapped him periodically. Not surprisingly, the young man effusively pronounced himself ‘cured’. And so would I. But there is a profound difference between simple ‘repression’ and real ‘cure’. And if we are more or less born the way we are born, perhaps it is pernicious to seek a cure anyway.

       You may be interested to know that the Vatican has even acknowledged that there is such a thing as a ‘homosexual orientation’. In their pastoral letter on homosexuals they admit that people are born the way that they are born and therapy will not change people who are exclusively homosexual. Like many religious folk who are struggling to be compassionate and take their bible seriously, they advocate celibacy. I know that makes people giggle in our sex driven culture. But the New Testament says that celibacy is a higher calling than marriage. So it is an option.

       Secondly, what is clear in scripture is that heterosexual monogamy is the norm. It is there at the beginning of the Creation stories, marriage becomes the central metaphor of God’s faithfulness to Israel despite their sin, it is a central part of the teaching of Jesus because it underscores the meaning of faithfulness and love. But what kind of norm is it? Do all norms have to be exclusive or can some of them be inclusive? If heterosexual monogamy is the norm does it mean that homosexual monogamy is a deviation or could it be understood as a variation on that norm? In the most difficult passage about homosexuality, Romans 1, St. Paul says that as a consequence of our fallenness, we have replaced the natural with the unnatural, ‘men have burned with lust for other men... and women for women’. Paul thought that heterosexual monogamy was an exclusive norm. It was given in nature and we only chose to go against it. Admittedly, this text is a problem for me. I struggle with it. I have to say that Paul presumes that we are all born heterosexually from his reading of the creation story in Genesis. It makes common sense. Since over 90% of all people are born heterosexual and homosexuals have been deeply closeted for their long history, who would think otherwise? But, knowing what we know today, I have to say that the metaphor of natural and unnatural in Romans got away from Paul. It cannot be pressed in modern standards because we know homosexuality is not unnatural for the exclusively gay community. Surely, St. Paul was thinking of the orgies that were regular fare at Caligula’s parties at the Imperial palace. The letter is written to Rome, after all.

       What is it anyway that we are supposed to learn about marriage from Genesis. That in our sexual union with our spouse, we are finding our fundamental complement. In the wonderful ancient language, Adam says ‘at last bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.’ Marriage is depicted as a kind of reunion of that which has been separated. That is a wonderful image for our sexuality, a mutual fulfillment of love, caring, compassion, perhaps even our child like play.

       I love the opening words to the wedding service. The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity." That is why we take those important vows that say ‘for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.’ Could not those aspirations and hopes be an inclusive norm which includes homosexual monogamy.

       For some of us that is a problem simply because that doesn’t fit with our image of the gay sub-culture. Now I must admit that as a Minister I don’t see the full range of the gay subculture. But I have been privileged to sit and talk with a few gay couples who take their faith seriously and what has impressed me is the remarkable similarity between their relationship and the relationship I have with my wife. There was a documentary ten years ago called ‘Tongues Untied’ on PBS that did the same thing. They interviewed homosexual and lesbian couples who had been together for 40 years. And you know what, they talked about each other with the same affection and demeanor that my grandparents had for each other. In other words, those who have lived in a monogamous relationship have the same tender fruit whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. The same standard yields the same blessing.

       Surely the converse of that is at least partly true. If we, as a church and a society, tell homosexuals that they are deviant and abnormal, they will create subcultures that embody deviance and abnormality. I was impressed last week by a comment made by one of our lecturers at the conference, Dean David Bartlett, Dean at Yale Divinity School. He said that he pastored a church in Oakland California which had several gay couples in the congregation. One couple in particular he got fairly close to. They were actively involved in the church, served on every board, always there on Sunday morning. They visited at the Bartlett home socially. The Dean said ‘during those years both of my sons were young and in elementary school. My wife and I used to talk about this fact. At 8 and 9 we weren’t sure whether our boys were heterosexual or homosexual. You usually don’t really know at that age. My wife used to say to me ‘if they grow up homosexual, isn’t it wonderful that they have had this fine example of committed monogamy to draw upon for themselves.’" Good point. You reap what you sow. Look not upon the outward appearance for God looks upon your heart.

       I was reminded recently a gay friend of just how much pain gay couples have had to endure because we have not been able to deal with them. He was telling me about attending a funeral for a friend of his who had been in a relationship for over ten years. They lived in Manhattan but the man’s family was from Dallas. The family never acknowledged their sons homosexuality. His spouse wasn’t acknowledged or even recognized at the funeral. No special cards were sent, no sympathies extended. In that most human moment, he was isolated and frozen out.

       Another friend, when he heard I was going to preach on this subject this week, remarked to me and said ‘after 25 years of being gay and no longer in my parents home in the South, a significant thing happened to me this year. I was talking to my father on the phone Christmas day and for the very first time he said to me ‘Son, how is with you and your family. He finally acknowledged that I also have a family. That meant so much to me.’

       I think it is time for us to rethink this. I know a lot of us just wish this would go away. We don’t want to talk about sexuality of any kind really, to say nothing of homosexuality. I have been one of you for a long time. ‘Must we talk about this really?’

       But these days, I’m not looking at sexuality as a problem to be tolerated or solved. I am thinking about the beloved community that we all struggle to become. I am thinking of the possibilities for celebration that are in front of us. So I want us to begin a process of talking about this. I am not going to tell you what to think and I have no intention of allowing these discussions to become divisive. We can disagree and still respect each other. But once in a while, I owe it to you to tell you what is on my mind and what I am struggling with. That too is part of what it means to be your Minister. It seems to me that we ought to be about supporting monogamy which is caring, loving, compassionate, long-suffering. In the words of St. Paul "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude Love does not insist on its own way. it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Let us look not on the outward appearance but on the heart."




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