So. How is the state of the world this week?
I suppose your perception of the world depends on who you are, doesn’t it? But I would venture to guess that if you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, your perception of the world this week might not be a particularly favorable one.
For we read of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate and another student streamed video on the internet of him having a sexual encounter with another male student. This tragedy brought to light both the specter of cyber-bullying but also of gay teen suicide. In the past three weeks, five gay youths have taken their own lives.1http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/01/raymond-chase-suicide_n_746989.html
All this follows on the heels of the publication of a study that GLBT students, faculty, and staff continue to face climates of harassment and inhospitality on campus.2http://chronicle.com/article/Gay-StudentsCollege/124419/%22%20target=
In addition, the general climate of intolerance and discrimination toward LGBT persons has demonstrated adverse health effects, ranging from higher rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse.3http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1272/is_n2618_v125/ai_18856928/ There are countless stories of bullying in schools, bigoted comments, prejudicial attitudes, outright discrimination, and, sadly, acts of violence and murder, such as those that claimed the lives of Billy Jack Gaither4http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/assault/ and Matthew Shepard.5http://www.matthewshepard.org/
The world can be a hurtful, unwelcoming place for LGBT persons.
II. THE CHURCH
Thank God the church is a place of sanctuary and refuge for everyone. Right? You look skeptical.
Perhaps for good reason.
A. The Fringe
A front page article in yesterday’s Washington Post, tells of the upcoming Supreme Court case regarding the free speech issues implicated by the activities of the Westboro Baptist Church under the leadership of Fred Phelps. For those of you who have been fortunate enough not to have heard of this “religious” community, they are the ones that routinely show up at military funerals with signs that read “Thank God for 9/11”, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, “God Hates You”, and “God Killed Your Sons”. They believe that because America is a place that’s tolerant of gay people, God is punishing the United States through the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and through the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not gay soldiers, mind you. All soldiers. They revel in the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and they, for some reason, really hate the Amish. But they hate GLBT persons most of all: carrying signs that say “God Hates You” and “God Hates Fags” among others. There are only 70 of them in their little family-cult of a church, but their voice is really, really loud. And they claim to do all of this in the name of God. The same God you and I worship. In the name of the same Christ you and I maintain died for the salvation of everyone.
They are the lunatic fringe of Christianity. Surely their shenanigans cannot be attributed to the broad stream of Christian faith, can they?
B. The Mainstream
Well, no, not quite to that extent. But the sad truth is that the mainstream church has not always been seen as much better.
One of the church fathers, St. John Chrysostom argued that homosexuality was worse than murder and more degrading.6http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Christianity_and_homosexuality And much of church teaching in the ancient period echoed the sentiment, often likening homosexuality to bestiality.
In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas would develop a philosophical theology around the Natural Law and would equate morality with that which was natural, a quality that can be discerned by an object’s purpose. Therefore, since the purpose of sexuality is procreation, then sex that does not serve that purpose is “unnatural”. In the Reformation, Martin Luther echoed those same sentiments, based largely on an understanding of what is natural.
Over the history of the church, sexual minorities have been persecuted, excommunicated, and very often punished, even to the point of death. The church, particularly in the post-Constantinian era, saw itself as the enforcer of the moral code, even to the point of punishing offenders with capital punishment.
Today the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many Evangelical Churches continue to assert the teaching that homosexuality is unnatural and sinful. A few denominations, notably the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church have made provision to allow gay and lesbian clergy and to perform same sex marriages. A number of other denominations have changed rules regarding laity but not the clergy.
The United Methodist Church, as with a number of other issues, is right down the middle. But this is not as much the radical center that Methodism is so good at as it is the hedging-your-bets-speaking-out-of-both-sides-of-your-mouth middle.
For the Church at once declares that homosexuals are “persons of sacred worth” who should be free from persecution and discrimination. At the same time, a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is not to be ordained to the ministry nor are same sex marriages—or any service of commitment for same-sex partners—to be permitted in our churches or performed by our clergy. (It is telling, by the way, that the church is still using the word “homosexual”, completely ignorant of other categories of sexuality and gender idenitity. This has sometimes had curious results, as in the appointment of a pastor who was transgendered, primarily because the church was not aware enough to think to ban such a thing.) But I remember as a child hearing my pastor say unequivocally in one of his sermons that “Homosexuals will not get into heaven.” I remember hearing that and thinking even as a child that that couldn’t quite be right. I have learned since then that my pastor had been wrong about a great many things.
And so it is that unless they were raised in a welcoming tradition like the UCC or in a particularly welcoming congregation of another denomination, many of our LGBT brothers and sisters have not felt welcomed by the church. They have not found the church to be a sanctuary free from the discrimination and inhospitality of the wider world. They have often found it to be a place where the prejudices and bigotries of the world have been reflected and reinforced, often with the veneer of divine sanction. The bigotries of the world become so much more painful when they’re all part of “God’s will” and “God’s Law”.
III. SODOM AND GOMORRAH
Now, much of Christian attitude about this shaped by a variety of factors. There are the normal socio-cultural factors that we see across societies where patriarchy and oppression of women manifests itself violently against men who “allow themselves to be treated like women.” There are culture-bound factors like traditional gender roles and suspicions of those who violate them. And of course there are the particular religious factors, in this case from the Christian scriptures.
There are the writings of Paul in which he lists a number of sins that separate you from God. It should be noted that the translations and meanings of the terms that are commonly associated with homosexuality are hotly debated; and many argue that Paul condemns not homosexuality, but pederasty: the Greek practice of sex between older men and younger boys or slaves.
There are the passages in Leviticus that speak of sex between two men as an “abomination”. It should also be noted that “abomination” is not a moral category, it is a ritual category, meaning “improper worship”. Now, you may be thinking, who on earth would confuse gay sex with worship in the first place? That’s easy: the Canaanites. They had male temple prostitutes. You remember the Canaanites. They were the idolatrous neighbors of the Israelites from whom the Israelites were supposed to be as different as possible.
But perhaps the granddaddy of all the Biblical texts used to justify exclusion of GLBT persons—the one that the Westboro Baptists clearly have in mind—is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In it we read of two angels who come to Sodom to investigate and wind up staying with Lot, where they warn him of the impending doom of the city. And then we read
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”
Now, “know” does on occasion mean “to have intercourse with” though it means “to come to know or experience” far more often. The latter meaning does not seem to be the meaning here, at least not on its face. And so it is that we have this scene of a city of men so consumed by homosexual lust that they can’t wait to get their hands on the new guys who’ve come to town. This, then, is the source of Sodom’s wickedness. Or is it? A closer reading of the text leads us to a different conclusion.
Because, I want to be clear about what the men of the city were NOT doing: They were not looking for dates, they were not there to invite Lot’s guests to a Sex in the City viewing party, or to cocktails so they could introduce them to their new shih-tzu. These men were there to exact violence upon these guests of Lot with the ultimate tool of sexual humilation: rape. Rape, that tool of war and domination used throughout history by menacing prisoners and marauding armies. Used in acts of violence and domination without regard to the sex of the person raped. Used in circumstances of power and force where it has as much to do with homosexuality as an actual army has to do with the cast of Miss Saigon.
No, the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah was the crime of inhospitality. It’s hard to see that in our modern Western culture because the value of hospitality isn’t as central to us. In the ancient Near East, indeed as it is in many of the traditional places in the Middle East today, hospitality was among the highest cultural obligations. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah can only be understood truly in light of that framework. In fact, the entire Biblical narrative in Genesis frames it that way.
For the story of the two angels visiting Lot in Sodom actually begins in Chapter 18 of Genesis, when those two angels and God appear to Abraham outside his tent near the oaks of Mamre. When Abraham sees the men—not realizing who they are—he runs to greet them and offers them a place to wash, to eat, and to rest before continuing on their journey. Abraham is not being hospitable because he knows it’s God and two angels, he is being hospitable because that is the right thing to do. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews makes note of this by saying: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13:2).
Later in the story God indicates that he has heard bad things about Sodom and Gomorrah and so sends the angels to investigate before destroying the cities. Abraham negotiates on behalf of the cities to spare them if ten righteous people are found there and God agrees.
When the angels arrive in Sodom, they are greeted immediately by Lot—again unaware of who they truly are—and invited to spend the night in his home.
It is against this backdrop that the men of the city seek to commit their heinous crime. For we saw in Abraham and Lot hospitality, and not just hospitality but insistent hospitality. Lot continued to offer welcome and lodging even when the angels begged off and said they could sleep in the square. And so, the actions of the men of the city stand in stark contrast to Abraham and Lot. Instead of offering welcome, peace, and rest, they sought domination, control, and violence.
Indeed, the remainder of the scriptural witness interprets Sodom’s sin in this way. Ezekiel notes that “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezek. 16:49) The prophets describe a number of sins of Sodom, all of them having to do with injustice, inhospitality, and idolatry. Never with homosexuality.
And then we come to Jesus. Jesus is sending his disciples out to proclaim the good news. He tells them to carry no provisions, but to rely on the generosity and graciousness of the people they come to. He tells them to find the house of someone who is worthy and stay there. Then he continues:
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
The connection here is clearly to hospitality and welcome. The towns that will not welcome the disciples on their mission to proclaim the good news are no better than the towns that were inhospitable to the angels of God.
So, then, who is it who is guilty of the sin of Sodom? We are. The church is.
Five years ago, I was writing a sermon for another reconciling Sunday. I usually write these sermons in a coffee house and as I wrote that particular sermon, sitting at the table next to mine were four women, some of whom were from the middle east, all of whom were lesbian. They were talking about their experiences with prejudice, cultural and otherwise. At one point, one of them said, “You have to understand, I was going to a Christian school and if they found out I was gay, they would have asked me to leave.” Others nodded knowingly. My heart sank. I wondered what definition of “Christian” that school fit into. Sadly, there are too many definitions of “Christian” out there that would fit that precisely.
IV. HOSPITALITY AND THE WAY OF CHRIST
How tragically ironic it is that we should be given a clear story of God’s disapproval of a lack of hospitality and respond by meeting LGBT persons with inhospitality and violence. All, by the way, in the name of God. Could we be guilty of a greater perversion of our Christian faith than that?
How tragic that we are the ones who profess to follow the one who welcomed all, who ate with tax collectors and those who were so far outside the community norm as to be considered ‘wicked’. Who lifted up the stranger, the Samaritan, the outcast, the leper, the prostitute, as members of the family of God. How did we get from following that one to a place where we think it’s okay for families to cut off contact with their LGBT children? Where we denied membership in our churches to LGBT persons and kept them out of the leadership and sacramental life of our churches? How did we get to a place where we burned people alive for their sexuality? How did we get to a place where we threatened people with hellfire and damnation for who they loved? What version of the Good News is that, exactly?
That is not Good News. That is the very way of the Sodom we claim to deplore. And it is not the way of Christ.
For the way of Christ is the way of a God with open arms. The way of welcome for the stranger, the marginalized, the afflicted. It would be hard to claim that in the life of the church that LGBT persons have not been marginalized and afflicted, and thus precisely the people who should be welcomed. And as we seek to be the body of Christ known in the world then we act as Jesus would act.
It may be okay in the world to believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons are second-class citizens in society and in the church. But not in this community.
It may be okay in the world to refer to something derisively as “gay”. But not in this community.
It may be okay in the world to discriminate among people because of whom they love. But not in this community.
It may be okay in the church at large to withhold positions of ministry and leadership from those who are LGBT. But not in this community.
It may be okay in the world to limit the definition of family to a stereotype from the 1950’s. But not in this community.
It may be okay in the church at large to speak of GLBT persons as if they were somehow less than fully Christian, or welcomed, but only on a technicality that required us to. But not in this community.
No, in this community we commit ourselves to an understanding of the love of Christ that is for all people. All. People. All persons are welcome here. All are welcome to participate fully in the life and ministry of this community. There are times when we take our cues from the broader church and there are times when we have something to teach the broader church. This is one of those times.
We commit ourselves to learn, to grow, to seek to understand human sexuality better. We commit ourselves to speaking up for those marginalized, terrorized, and harassed. We commit ourselves to witnessing for human dignity and equality for all persons, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. And most importantly, we commit ourselves to a radical hospitality that welcomes all. A radical hospitality that shares the love of Jesus with everyone. Welcoming all into the life of the church. And in so doing, we may find that we have entertained angels without knowing it.
Genesis 19:1-11, 15, 24-25
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.
When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.”
Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”