Flesh of My Flesh – Scripture and Support of Same-Sex Marriage

Flesh of My Flesh – Scripture and Support of Same-Sex Marriage

A sermon preached by Pastor Mara at The Community Church in January of 2020.

I wonder if you’ve ever looked out the window of an airplane and seen this sight:

How curious. The fields themselves seem to be square-shaped. But the crops are growing in circles, leaving all that growing space in the corners and on the edges empty. It seems like a waste.

Nadia Bolz Weber, Lutheran pastor, saw this sight routinely on her flights in and out of Denver where the church she pastored was located. Eventually she was bothered by it enough that she did some research, and she discovered the agricultural technique of CENTRAL PIVOT IRRIGATION. It turns out that the farmers plant seeds on the WHOLE square of the field, and the whole field has sprouts, but the giant sprinklers only give water in a circular pattern, meaning that the sprouts on the edges and corners of the fields shrivel up, while the sprouts closer to the center are able to thrive and grow to their full potential.

Nadia Bolz Weber says the church’s prevailing teaching on human sexuality works a lot like center pivot irrigation in a square field. It provides structure, redemption, meaning and grace for the people who exist close to the center of the church’s traditional expectations for sexuality, but the rest of us are left out on the margins to shrivel up and die.

There are so many people in those dry corners. Some of you have heard this story before but it’s worth mentioning again. Back in August we got this email through our website from a woman living in Ada who lives out beyond the path of the church’s center-pivot irrigation system.

If my partner and I had interest in your church, as a lesbian couple would we be welcome?  We aren’t looking for a ‘conditional’ welcome but a true ‘there’s a place on our church for you.’  We live in the area, grew up in the church but the church that once loved us, now that we are gay, shuns us. 

We’ve been away from the church long enough now that if there’s ‘no room at the inn’ for us we’ve become very accustomed to leisurely Sunday morning coffee with the newspaper. But considering we both grew up in the church and loved the reformed faith I figure it’s always worth approaching you. 

Why am I asking you/your church in particular?  I was on the Refugee Education Center website and see that you all sponsor their good work. If there’s room in your hearts for the disenfranchised (especially in this time of our history) thought that maybe there are seats in your pew open to another disenfranchised group. 

Thanks for your consideration. 

They’re out in the dry corners, wondering if there’s a place for them in the church that they once loved. This couple and other gay Christians, especially after the legalization of gay marriage, are raising new questions for us. Can these relationships, who have committed to love and care for one another, who seek to follow Christ and are good to each other and to the world, can their relationship be honored and affirmed by the Church? Can a marriage between two men or between two women honor God in the same way a heterosexual marriage can? 

The welcome statement that we’re working on adopting says that these marriages can honor God in the same way that heterosexual marriages can honor God, and we’re going to explore the scripture around that today.

I want to pause here for a moment to check in. How are you doing with this so far? I’m guessing that some of you are thinking, oh good grief, why do we have to keep talking about this? Can we move on already? And on the other hand, some of you have found healing and hope in our recent discussions on sexuality and you are hungry for more. It is my joyful duty to preach to all of you this morning. To those of you who are ready to move on, I want to tell you that we’re very intentionally being explicit about our proposed welcome statement this month because we don’t want there to be any surprises later about what this really means. So our apologies if this feels like we’re beating a dead horse. I ask you to hang in there with us, because the message sinks in at different rates for different people. And after this week we’ll move to discussing other things from our proposed welcome statement like paths to relationship with God, and unity in Christ rather than unity in agreement. Which is to say, it won’t be about sex. And to those of you who want to continue to engage this, I invite you to join our Colossian Forum experience starting in February.

Okay, let’s wade into these waters. Here’s the question before us: can a marriage between two men or between two women honor God in the same way a heterosexual marriage can? In order to answer this question, we need to have a wisdom conversation with the Holy Spirit about what the Bible says about sex and marriage. 

Well, the Bible says a whole bunch about human sexuality generally through stories, proverbs, descriptions, laws, and calls to holiness. And what the Bible says about sex and marriage is hugely varied. From beautiful to broken, holy to scandalous, disturbing to hopeful, even descriptions of bodies and desire that will make you blush. 

Among the vast variety of what the Bible says about sex are a few texts that mention homosexuality in various ways. Six of them, to be exact. Six verses out of 31,000 verses total in scripture. And those precious few texts seem to have risen up above all the others about sexuality and have dominated how Christians have traditionally responded to gay and lesbian bisexual and transgender people. 

So let’s talk about those six verses briefly. Each one speaks negatively in some way about acts between two men or two women. But the question we need to ask of the Holy Spirit in this wisdom conversation is whether the acts mentioned in these six scriptures apply to the situation before us, which is whether two people of the same sex can be blessed by God in marriage. Because each one, when read in the context of a wisdom conversation with scripture, becomes deeply problematic when we try to apply it to a same-sex couple who wants to enter into a covenanted monogamous relationship. The questions these texts were written to address were much different than our questions, and this wisdom conversation with the Holy Spirit and scripture requires that we try to figure out what their questions were.

The six texts are the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two texts in Leviticus, and three snippets from the Apostle Paul’s letters. In all of these I want you to remember that ancient people had no concept of homosexuality as an enduring orientation that people are born with. The word homosexual never even existed until 1869. They simply didn’t conceive of any kind of same-sex relations that were anything other than actions of dominance, violence, or obsession with sexual experiences. So what we know now, that sexual orientation is hard-wired into our brains and our bodies rather than a set of actions that a person chooses, impacts how we read these texts but we need to remember that these texts were written with a very different set of assumptions about human sexuality. Anyway, let’s get on with it.

First, Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps you remember the story from Genesis 19. There are two wicked cities named Sodom and Gomorrah. And God became very angry with the people of those two cities and destroyed them. Why? The height of their wickedness as told in Genesis 19 is that two strangers were traveling through the area and came to the city at night for protection. The customs and laws of the people at the time dictated that they were to protect and care for strangers who came into their cities. So a guy named Lot, being faithful to this call to care for strangers, invited the two strangers into his home for the night, fed them, and offered them a place to sleep. During the night, the men of the town came to Lot’s house and demanded that Lot send the two men outside “so that we may know them.” “Know” is a euphemism for a sexual act. Lot protects the two strangers from this violent act, not realizing that they were actually angels. The wrath of God flares, and God responds to their wickedness by raining down sulfur and fire on Sodom. The two angels get Lot and his family out of Sodom just in time.

The meaning that much of Christianity has given this text is that God destroyed Sodom because the men of the city wanted to “know” the visitors. This is the origin of the term “Sodomite” which in the past referred to a gay man. But how does the popular Christian understanding of the meaning of this text line up with what the Bible understands about the meaning of Sodom and Gomorrah? The Bible is actually crystal clear about why God destroyed Sodom, in Ezekiel 16: 

49 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. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Pride, and riches that they did not share with the needy and poor. Haughty. Abominable things. Now, that “abominable things” includes the act which the men of Sodom were going to do to the guests, but that act was about violence and humiliation that a group wanted to do to two vulnerable individuals, not about desire and commitment like we see when two men want to get married. Sodom’s sin was not homosexuality. Sodom’s sin was failing to care for the poor and protect the stranger.

The next two texts come from Leviticus, where the author famously refers to relations between two men as being “an abomination.” This comes in the context of a long and complex set of purity laws that God gives the Hebrew people. There are many other things that are called abominations in Leviticus: touching a woman during her period, eating shellfish, eating pork. It is important to know that these purity laws are very specific for the Hebrew people with their life and their neighbors. And in order to apply this scripture to our lives today, we have to ask WHY those things were prohibited. It had to do with 1) keeping the Hebrew people healthy (like not eating old meat in the days before refrigeration), 2) guiding their behavior in meaningful ways that distinguish them from their neighbors who did not worship God, and 3) protecting vulnerable people in their midst. 

Now, we no longer follow these purity codes, because Jesus tells us that righteousness comes not from following laws but from the state of our hearts. So it gets really tricky when we give some of these purity codes staying power while releasing others because they’re “not applicable.” That means we can’t claim that some of these so-called abominations should be preached against as something that “the Bible clearly says” while also enjoying Bang Bang shrimp from Bonefish Grill. That just doesn’t have any integrity.

For all the reasons I just said, it’s tempting to just ignore these purity code texts because they don’t seem applicable to modern life. But that’s not what a wisdom conversation with scripture does. We need to seek the deeper meaning behind them, in the context of Christ’s work. So what is going on here for us? What we can say with confidence about these texts is that God puts boundaries around our sexual behavior. God wants our sexual behavior to promote physical health. God wants our sexual behavior to be guided by our spiritual commitments, and God wants our sexual behavior to never cause harm. Same-sex marriage can fit inside all of those boundaries. And there are plenty of opposite sex marriages that fall outside those boundaires.

We’ve got three more texts, and we’ll take two of them together. These are written by the apostle Paul in his letters, where he warns against various types of immorality. It’s a common genre of ancient writing called a vice list. The two texts are 1 Corinthians 6:5-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11. Because they’re so similar, we’re only going to read the Timothy text. It reads like this:

8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. 9 This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

Did you catch the word? “Sodomites.” Now remember, what we have before us today is a translation of ancient words. So “Sodomite” is a translation of an ancient Greek word, arsenokoites. And this word is a real puzzle because it doesn’t occur anywhere else in scripture other than these two vice lists. The literal translation of the word is something like “man-bedder.” The more times a word occurs in writing, the more accurate the translation of the word can be because you can compare and look at various contexts. Not so with this word, arsenokoites. Translating this word is very tricky. We’ve already discussed the fact that the sin of men of Sodom had to do with the desire to do sexual violence to the visitors rather than caring for them. So that’s a misleading translation. Other translations use “homoseuxal,” which is modern word (first used in the 1800s) for a concept that didn’t exist in Paul’s mind, so that doesn’t work either. So what was Paul thinking of in these vice lists? What did Paul have in his head when he wrote “arsenokoites?”

Here’s what we know was happening in the communities to whom Paul was writing. It’s called pederasty. Wealthy men would have slaves or sometimes students, and it was very common for these relationships to involve non-consensual activity between the older man and the younger man. Because of the prominence of this practice, it’s likely that Paul was referring to this. Paul is likely saying that even though this may be acceptable in the culture around you, it is not becoming of a Christian. It’s not necessarily unbecoming because it’s two men, it’s sinful because it rises not out of holy desire but out of lust and domination and it harms a vulnerable person. Again, Paul is calling for boundaries around the sex life of a Christian. You do not engage in practices that harm others. And that counts for both hetero and homosexual people. He is not talking about relationships where desire and commitment are mutual, where harm is not being done, and where lives are woven together in covenants of monogamy.

Now, the last one. Romans 1. This one is the most complex, but don’t worry, we’ve got this. The connection Paul is making here is between sexual sins and idolatry. Romans 1:22-27:

22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The connection that Paul draws is this: both idolatry and these sinful behaviors involve self gratification over worshiping God. Idolatry seeks whatever god might bring the most benefit to the person. These lustful encounters between men and between women are the same – they are self-serving encounters looking for more and self-gratification over the kind of self-giving that God calls us to. This is over-the-top lust, not content with mutuality and consent in the context of covenant, but seeking more and more exotic experiences for supposed new heights of pleasure. Again, Paul is naming a boundary that God sets out for us in our sexuality: Self-giving rather than self-serving. Paul doesn’t necessarily call out these encounters because they’re between men and between women, he calls them out because they’re lustful and self-serving, and they ultimately lead to pain and emptiness.

There’s one more really interesting thing about Romans 1, and that is an infamous Roman Emperor named Gaius Caligula who was in power around the time that Paul wrote this letter to the Romans. This guy was out of control, and would not doubt have caught the attention of the Christians in Rome. Gaius Caligula was famous for saying, “Remember, I have the right to do anything to anyone.” He tormented high-ranking senators by making them run for miles in front of his chariot. He spent a huge amount of money having a bridge built for the sole purpose of parading around on it with his horse for 2 days. He had brazen affairs with the wives of his allies and was rumored to have incestuous relationships with his sisters. He hosted parties where he ordered women to do things with other women in front of the guests. He sexually violated a high ranking officer in his military, who later assassinated him by stabbing him in the genitals. Does that remind you of what Paul says, “Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

It could be that Paul is speaking out specifically against Gaius Caligula. But of course he wouldn’t use the Emperor’s name – that would not go well for him. If Paul is speaking against the sins of Gaius Caligular, then this text isn’t problematic at all for two men or two women who want to be married. And what does Paul want the reader to know? That our worship of God and our sex lives should both be characterized by the same thing: giving of the self for the sake of the other. Never lustful desire for self-gratification that is willing to go anywhere and do anything for their own advancement.

Okay. We did it. Those are the 6 texts. Thank you for hanging in there with me. I know that was heady. 

Now, here we are at the end. In closing, I have in my mind a sentiment from Nicholas Wolterstorff, a prominent Christian philosopher in the Reformed tradition. He basically says that if, in the range of several possible interpretations of scripture, there is a way to faithfully conclude that God forbids only the types of homosexual activity that break covenants and harm others, then we should open the great good of marriage to same-sex couples. If we can offer this grace, then justice demands that we offer it. If we can read scripture in a way that makes space for same-sex marriage for Christians, then we must.

Because you know what, God is not a center-pivot irrigation system. God’s grace doesn’t emanate out from a center point, getting thinner at the edges of the field and leaving the corners dry. God’s grace is a gigantic rain cloud, falling on every square inch of this great field of humanity. It’s for those at the edges as much as those in the middle. It’s time for the church to join God in tending the whole field.

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