I bring you greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. It is a blessing and honor to be with you this morning as we celebrate this church’s decision to join with a broad movement of communities of faith in the ELCA and beyond to declare the full welcome of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer children of God. When discussing with Nathaniel potential dates for this occasion, I did ask with some concern whether it would actually be all right to have a Methodist in the pulpit on what is also Reformation Sunday. Since I’m here, I guess you really are serious about making a radical witness to God’s inclusion! But still, I feel the need to assure you: after four years at Luther College, I do claim Lutheranism as part of my spiritual heritage. And to go a step further, perhaps the most important expression of religious devotion I could make to legitimate my place here likewise grows out of seeds planted at Luther, particularly during my first year when Nathaniel and I were roommates: I also claim a real love for the Red Sox. So all of this is to say that I think we should all get along just fine.
One thing you should know about me upfront is that I’m a doctoral candidate at Harvard studying New Testament and Early Christianity. That is to say that, at best, this sermon may be somewhat interesting. And at worst, it may be quite laborious and boring. We academic types are not known for scintillating public speech. But I’m going to try to hold your interest by starting with what may be a provocative assertion. It’s quite exciting and appropriate that celebration of your Reconciling status coincides with Reformation Sunday. You are bearing witness to the continued Reformation impulse toward faith known in direct relationship with God, not mediated by religious elites and ecclesial rules and regulations. But if the central motto of the Reformation might be expressed by Paul’s words to the Romans read this morning—”For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (3:28)—I would be inclined to say that the Reformation has been somewhat of a failure. We are still obsessed with the law; that is, Christians continue to be caught up in concerns for general rules that ostensibly help us sort out who really has faith and who doesn’t.
But then I’d also have to say something that is a kind of personal mantra for me—and a familiar refrain for us academic types: “It’s complicated.” Neither Paul, nor Martin Luther, nor most anyone who would advance the argument that we are justified before God by faith rather than works would say that absolutely anything goes, that there are no standards for what it means to live well in relationship to God and one another, that how we live doesn’t matter in any way.
This dilemma was never as clear to me as in conversation with a woman I met at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference. United Methodists from around the world meet every four years to revise our policies, and these are increasingly tense, ugly, unholy affairs (I’ll mercifully spare you the complicated reasons). I was attending the 2012 General Conference in my capacity as a board member of the United Methodist General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, so I had some official work to be doing. On this one particular morning, I was observing a legislative committee that would soon be considering legislation relevant to the Commission. It so happened that this legislative committee was also taking up some contentious petitions dealing with human sexuality. Because of this, the session attracted many observers, and on this day, a coalition of progressive Methodists had asked people to wear black as a sign of solidarity and mourning for the ways the church continues to harm persons who are LGBTQ.
Truth be told, I had forgotten about the plan to wear black, so I was in bright blue. Moreover, since I was there representing an official church agency, I was sitting apart from the progressive coalition. But it turned out that this may actually have opened up some space for dialogue. During a break, the very warm and kind women sitting next to me started to engage me in conversation. We both felt increasingly comfortable with each other, to the point that this woman expressed to me how painful it can be as someone from a conservative part of Pennsylvania, with conservative leanings herself, to feel like she is to blame for causing harm to LGBTQ persons, especially when she—like so many of us—feels that she is just trying to love everyone in the best ways she knows how.
Honoring the pain in all directions, the questions started to flow forth as she tried earnestly to understand the “other side,” the people in the black shirts. I answered as best I could: “When we know LGBTQ people and when we see the love they share and the good gifts of God they demonstrate, we generally desire to honor them as persons and to honor the work God does through them.” I talked about what I know to be true: the love shared between two people of the same sex can help to deepen relationship with God and bear the good fruits of God’s love made manifest through lives as couples and as individuals.
My fast friend paused for a few moments and then, with tears in her eyes, asked, “You mean, it’s like the love I have for my husband? It’s like how we grow in faith through the ways we care for and support one another?”
I might have had an instinct to give an obvious, “Yeah! What did you think?!” But I felt more deeply a sincere, “Yes. We are connected in love for one another through the abiding love of God.”
And then there was a longer pause. We reached the question that I think lurks behind most of our church debates over sexuality, which has very little to do with LGBTQ persons themselves, but, more so, is rooted in our own uncertainties about faith and how to make sense of the Bible’s meaning for our lives. “I hear what you’re saying,” she said, “but then can we call anything sinful?”
There it was. The question with which we’re all faced when we want to take the Bible seriously but also want to take seriously that our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer family members and friends are persons cherished not only by us but by God, in the fullness of their humanity.
And we say to Jesus again, “We’ve never been slaves. We know what it is to be free. We know God.”
And we take up the debate Paul was engaging once again. “We know that salvation comes through Christ. But we also need to know precisely how we can be sure that we’re on the right or wrong track.”
What’s especially tricky is that Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we cite today because of its pithy expressions of justification by faith, is also the only place in the entire Bible where sex between women, and not just sex between men, is explicitly condemned. Otherwise we might say that the Bible knows nothing of the full range of same-sex relations we know today. But Paul just has to go and mention lesbian sex, and so we are left to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the Bible might really only have bad things to say about sexual relations between people of the same sex. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t have any recourse for making a biblical argument for the inclusion of our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers.
As a scholar of the New Testament, I’m here to tell you today… that I don’t actually want to talk about the minutia of biblical instructions regarding sexuality. I don’t want to go there today because the Bible is generally quite sexist and patriarchal when it has anything to say about proper sexual and marital relations.[*] Even this one biblical mention of sex between women in Romans calls such relationships “unnatural,” while it designates the sexual acts between men as “shameless” or “shameful.” We’re talking about a world in which it was “natural” for a man to dominate another man, sexually or otherwise, as long as he was in the position of the aggressor, the “real man.” And so the “shame” of sexual relations between men was not something rooted in a divine mandate against same-sex sex but a cultural preference for dominant masculinity. That is why sexual relations between women were termed “unnatural,” because they didn’t involve a man to take control. If we don’t take seriously the idea that God is incredibly sexist—which I hope we don’t—then I don’t think we can take seriously the idea that God hates gay people, no matter how much a hateful church in Kansas and a certain local gubernatorial candidate would have you believe.
No, I don’t want to get caught up in the precise rules of the ancient game because they are contextual, and no matter how much we might not want to admit it, we’re always making exceptions and shifting how we conceive of and apply the so-called law.
Instead, what lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are teaching the Church exemplifies in some significant ways what Jesus expressed to his disciples: “You might think you’ve always been free,” and here of course I’m paraphrasing, “But as long as you forget that you’ve been caught up in the limitations of human rules, enslaved to systems of human thought and practice, you’re going to miss the truth.” And now I quote: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31–32).
Sisters and brothers in Christ, I personally have a great deal of patience for the journey toward discovering and knowing God’s abiding love for queer people because I have known it in my body and soul; I have come to know that we are only made free by the grace of God. There was a time when I prayed day and night to be changed, to be made “pure,” because I had the idea that God could not accept me as a gay person. I knew through my obsessive, even torturous prayers, what Paul meant when he said that “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). For as long as I thought my sexuality separated me from God, I was obsessed with my sin.
Even so, I still remember a morning of prayer when a thought occurred to me—I believe it was by the grace of God: “Maybe you are not changed because God loves you as you are.” It scared me. I couldn’t conceive of it. What if I were wrong? What if I were just giving into sin to satisfy fleshly desires? It couldn’t be true. And so I prayed harder but somehow loved less.
Friends, I was denying the idea that God might love me as I am. This is what the church and world has done to LGBTQ persons.
But then I started learning more about the Bible, and I came to experience freedom, not by circumventing scripture, but through deeper understanding of it. I started to learn that faithful people throughout the ages have disagreed about what it means to live well in relationship to God and so in relationship to one another. I started to learn about how these tensions are recorded together in the book we consider sacred, that a part of our spiritual heritage is faithful and productive disagreement through which we might actually come to know more fully the complexity of the divine and so too the complexity and utter beauty of diverse humanity. I started to recognize more completely the love of others that is grounded in the love of God.
And slowly but with increasing confidence, I allowed myself finally to start coming out to God, to myself, and eventually to my friends and family. And if I ever doubted it before, the freedom I experienced in coming out was proof enough that God did not love me in spite of my sexuality but in the fullness of it.
I know God more fully because I came to reconcile my sexuality and my faith. I know God more fully because I have come to know deep love and partnership with another. I know God more fully because God’s love has opened my heart to love others more fully, to take seriously the ways that the Spirit moves in the world even beyond our expectations.
And so, too, I take seriously that I—and we—need to pay attention for all the ways we limit knowledge, understanding, and love of God. The quickest way we might do that with today’s texts is to associate “the law” with Judaism and so to say that Jews get it wrong and that only Christians have the right answers. The tragic death and destruction wrought by this sort of attitude should be enough to tell us that such assertions are not from God. We misunderstand Judaism’s rich conceptions of justice and righteousness if we think it is just a religion of meaningless rules, and so we do harm when we argue for the freedom of anyone—gay or otherwise—at the expense of any others—Jewish or otherwise.
Rather, we might do well to adopt an impulse of waiting and seeing what fruits are borne out by expressions of faith. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus sets the standard for knowing who speaks the truth of God by saying that “every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit…. Thus you will know them by their fruits” (7:17, 20). It is not that committing ourselves to the inclusion of LGBTQ persons means we no longer have standards. Instead, we look for the truth—according to rather fruity standards, I might add—in that which brings freedom, where there are good fruits. And we reject those things that cause harm to God’s creation, whether on the basis of sexuality and gender or also race, ethnicity, status, economics, etc.
What I have learned along my journey and through the example of bold and faithful disciples who witness with their lives the true freedom grounded in God is that God is already blessing the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons. And we too will know the joy of God when we do likewise.
Becoming a congregation that names itself “Reconciling in Christ” is an important expression of such love and faithfulness. And now you have new opportunities to bear witness to the kind of faith that brings people into communion with one another through the abiding love and grace of God. God delights with us in this celebration today, and God will surely continue to delight as we go forth to be bearers of justice, joy, and love.
[*] In my reading here of Romans 1:26–27, I am drawing especially on the excellent scholarship of Bernadette Brooten in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism and Stephen Moore in the third chapter (“Sex and the Single Apostle”) of his book God’s Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and Around the Bible. ^