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Holy Mess (3): Human Sexuality

. 12 min read

The Scripture reading:

The message:

Holy
Mess (3): Human Sexuality
   
2015/01/25
Christ Church, Mountain Top
Call
to Worship, Canticle of Love (#646)
Children,
Genesis 2.15-25
Message,
Genesis 38.1-30
We
struggle to talk about sex. I loved the scene in one of the Beethoven movies – the ones about the
dog, not the composer. The kids needed to distract their father to smuggle the
dogs into the house, so the daughter says, “Dad, tell me again how babies are
made?” Dad launches into an awkward speech that includes something about
swimming tadpoles, if I recall. When the daughter gets the “all clear” signal,
she cuts him off: “You really don’t know much about this, do you?”
      It is amazing how much we struggle to have
these conversations, not just with our children but with each other as adults,
given how pervasive sexuality is in our culture. We advertise cars, beer, and
deodorant with sex. We go through the checkout lines at the grocery and see
magazine headlines – 10 ways to drive him crazy in bed, woman has alien baby,
how to look good when pregnant, how to look like you’ve never been pregnant
after you’ve had your baby.
      I believe there are two main problems at
the root of our struggle to talk about human sexuality and, amazingly, neither
is pointed to the pervasiveness of sexuality in our culture. They are spiritual
problems, through and through. The first is that we struggle to believe the
good news that God has created us as sexual creatures, not only for the
practical purpose of making babies, but also for the joy and pleasure of
oneness. Not many of us pause in our love making to thank Jesus for this
wonderful gift. Second, we’re broken, all of us. As beautiful as the gift of
sex is, we carry into it the memories of failed relationships, the pain of
abuse, and a fantasy life that gets in the way of what is real.
      I’d love to devote more time to these
general questions of human sexuality. However, the promise and purpose of this
series of messages is to leverage the ambiguity and strangeness of Scripture to
open us to broader and deeper questions around the major controversies of our
time.

One
of the huge controversial topics in the church regarding human sexuality is
around same-sex sex and same-gender marriage. The biggest problem about this
conversation topic is that we are not having it (Shuman, 454). In The United
Methodist Church we have a wide variety of conviction on the matter among both
clergy and lay persons. But our conversation seems to be limited to church
courtrooms as we argue over the nature of our clergy covenant and the
ecclesiastical disobedience of pastors who perform same-gender union services
for their children. That’s why I am so glad that our bishop is calling together
the clergy of this annual conference to have conversations on this question. We
won’t leave those conversations in agreement, but it is my prayer that we will
be able to honor one another as brother and sister, to recognize that we can
indeed “be of one heart, if not altogether of one mind” (Wesley).
      The debate and difference has galvanized both
the culture and the church into two mutually exclusive camps. Camp #1: The
Bible says that same-sex sex is sin, therefore, our gay and lesbian brothers
and sisters must repent and change. Camp #2: Jesus accepted everyone and
teaches us not to be judgmental, and – besides – the Biblical prohibitions are
culturally conditioned; therefore, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are
welcome to follow Jesus without any change to their sexual identity,
orientation, or practice. We find it easier to talk at or about each other than
with each other. We turn Scripture into ammunition and hurl proof texts at one
another, as if this is an entirely appropriate way to utilize the Word of God.
Enough already.
      And, these two camps, at the extreme
edges, operate out of fear. On the one side are persons who are afraid of the
LGBTQA community for a variety of reasons – they are different, they are “unnatural”
(and therefore deviant), or they are assumed to be predatory. We call this fear
“homophobia” and it is groundless. It is also what I grew up with. I am
grateful for brothers and sisters, both gay and straight, who helped me see
beyond the end of my nose. On the other side are lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgendered and others who have been victimized, with physical violence, with
harsh judgment, and with attempts to reprogram desire, in the name of religion
or Jesus. And, simply to talk about homosexuality as an “issue” depersonalizes
people.
      Two anthropologists – one a member of the
“Christian right” and the other a lesbian activist – published a paper
demonstrating that both the Christian right and the LGBTQA activist community,
“share a commitment to violent language” such as “fight the Right” or reclaim
the “church militant” for the “culture wars” (Paris, 71).
      Then, there are those folks who have given
up on violence – kind of like Jesus. Some believe that same-sex sex is sin and nevertheless
have no hesitation embracing gays and lesbians as brothers and sisters in
Jesus. And, there are gays and lesbians – both closeted and out – who keep
coming to church, even churches that judge them, because they insist on
following Jesus along with straight people. That takes courage.
      Last week we asked if it was possible for
evolutionary scientists to be disciples of Jesus. My answer was “Yes”, and I
shared some of their stories and insights. This week, one of our questions is
if it is possible for gays and lesbians to also be disciples of Jesus. To which
my answer is “Of course!” I could introduce you to one gay or lesbian friend
after another, most of whom have painful stories, who serve as pastors, who are
faithful church members, who are celibate or in a committed relationship, who
have attempted heterosexual life and marriage, who present their children for
baptism, who have tried one church after another and found themselves rejected
at every turn. And – here is the evangelical imperative – let us not erect
artificial barriers that prevent them from meeting Jesus and following him with
us.
      We need to have these sexuality conversations
in the church. It must not be a taboo subject. Yes, it is painful and fearful
for many of us, no matter our convictions or experience, but it is even more
painful, and pain-inducing, to live in silence. What if a child or grandchild
comes out as gay? We need someone to talk to who won’t leap immediately to
judgment. What if our gay children, or neighbors, or co-workers, experience
discrimination? We need to stand up and be counted. And we won’t be able to do
that unless we have had these conversations. And, to acknowledge the many other
struggles we have with sex, what if we are obsessed with porn, hate our bodies,
are struggling with the death of a marriage, have broken our vows, or are angry
about our singleness? We need people who recognize who we are – God’s dearly
loved children – and who likewise recognize that we are, all of us, broken.
That’s
why we’ve got this crazy, God-awful, text before us this morning: Because we
are all broken. Those of us who are straight have “no moral high ground”
(Paris, 92), nothing that makes us special or better because we were born with
or grew up with a particular set of desires. We are all broken. Our
sexualities, our view of the human body, our desires, our identities, our
loneliness, our connections, our culture – all broken.
      So, we’ve got this awful story – one that
makes soap operas and reality television appear positively boring and
uninventive. And it’s in the Book – a book that also includes the first
romantic short story and the greatest erotic poem of ancient literature, along
with plenty more amazing stuff. In today’s story, Judah’s son Er marries Tamar.
But Er is evil, and God strikes him down before he can leave an heir. According
to ancient tradition, a tradition later included in Jewish law, it is the
obligation of the next son to have children with his brother’s wife so that his
brother’s inheritance will be maintained. Onan may have had some interest in
Tamar, but he had no interest in maintaining his dead brother’s inheritance.
So, God kills him too. Judah’s thinking that it’s the woman’s fault (and, you
know, we’ve always got to blame the woman). So, he tells her to live with her
family (a violation of ancient tradition which obliged Judah’s family to care
for her) and promised to give Shelah, aka Son #3, to her as husband once he is
old enough. Not!
      Tamar takes matters into her own hands.
She keeps tabs on her in-laws. After her mother-in-law dies, once Judah has
finished the formal mourning period, when he is out of town on a business trip,
she shows up, posing as a prostitute. He propositions her, doesn’t have any
cash and leaves her with his ID – his engraved staff and his signet ring, worn
on a cord around the neck. She’s timed things perfectly, becomes pregnant, and
goes back to live with her family.
      Judah gets the news of the pregnancy and
wants her dead. Though he hasn’t provided for her appropriately, though he has
refused to give her his son Shelah to protect the family inheritance, he claims
the power of protecting the family inheritance and orders the execution of
Tamar and her unborn child. Only, the twin boys in her womb are part of the
family, not the sons of some interloper. Can’t you just see her strutting out
to Judah with the staff in one hand, twirling the signet cord with the other? “Take
note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff. … It was
the owner of these who made me pregnant” (Gn 38.25).
      “She is more righteous than I” (38.26).
Wow! This makes me seem pretty healthy! Do you hear his logic? Judah was “in
the right”, he was “righteous”, when condemning Tamar to death for dishonoring
the family. And Tamar was even more “in the right”, more “righteous”, when
posing as a prostitute to do her duty by her dead husband.
This
tells us a couple things. First: The idea of being more or less righteous than
someone else is a total crock. Second: The idea that our righteousness (as we
define it – and we almost always find some way to put ourselves in the right) …
the idea that our righteousness gives us privilege is a total crock.  
      Janell Williams Paris is an anthropologist
who specializes in human sexuality and a Christian with a conservative
sex-in-marriage-between-a-man-and-a-woman perspective. She has written a
remarkable book titled The End of Sexual
Identity: Why sex is too important to define who we are.
      Paris points out that Christians often
“teach others to measure their worth by morality rather than by their
belovedness. When sexual morality is elevated to an idolatrous place, it
diminishes people’s sense of being loved and being able to love” (83). It is
the same thing that Judah did when he said, “She is more righteous.” He was
measuring worth by morality, not by being loved. The fact, however, is that we
are all sinners, every one of us, and all loved. Paris goes on to write, “In
the post-sexual identity church, there’s no moral high ground for heterosexuals
and no closet for homosexuals. There’s just people, each of whom is lover and
loved” (92).
So,
Pastor, what do you think about “homosexuality”? I have some things to say as a
pastor, that is, in terms of how we do ministry and how we follow Jesus
together, about which I have total confidence. On the other hand, as a teacher
of the Scripture, I feel a lot like the awkward dad in the Beethoven movies. So, let’s start with the confidence: Jesus calls
us to welcome everyone, no matter what. That is, no matter how uncomfortable we
may feel, no matter how strange they may be, no matter how wrong we think they
are (say, for example, anyone who roots for the Dallas Cowboys). “Welcome one
another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you” (Ro 15.7). Furthermore, as
it is possible for someone to be both a disciple of Jesus and gay or lesbian, let
us not create extra barriers to keep anyone from finding and following Jesus
(see Acts 15 on barriers to outsiders).
      In terms of the Scripture…. A couple
comments: First, the Scripture actually says very little about same-sex sex, only
six references in the entire book, and all but one of those passages are focused
exclusively on men having sex with men. (You can find all those passages, withsome notations, along with official statements of The United Methodist Church,included with this week’s note sheet.) While there is strong language that
condemns same-sex sex, there is very little compared to other, obviously more
significant, matters of human sexuality. When it comes to sexual behaviors, for
example, the Scriptures are much more concerned with pornography (read “lust”),
adultery, and child abuse than with a monogamous same-sex relationship.
      As a pastor, I want to focus on what the
Bible considers important. So, in my preaching on human sexuality, you will
hear me emphasize the biblical values of exclusiveness in our relationships,
that is, we give ourselves to one person and one person only, and faithfulness,
that is, we live out a promise and covenant over a lifetime. That faithful
promise and covenant keeping includes all of who we are, even our imagination
and fantasy lives. I love the example of Job, who declared, “I made a covenant
with my eyes not to look lustfully” (Job 31.1, NIV). You will hear me emphasize
the value of equality, from the biblical expression “a suitable partner”, and
the value of joy and pleasure in what God has made, in how we are designed. It
is my hope that we can learn to celebrate love in the language of the biblical
Song of Songs (8.6-7): “Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.”
Secondly,
each of these passages on same-sex sex bear a significant amount of cultural
freight that we typically discount in modern interpretation. For example, in
The United Methodist Church, while we mourn divorce and the inevitable pain it
causes, we welcome divorced persons into leadership, even as clergy, despite prohibitive
biblical language, because we read it as applying to a cultural context that is
not analogous to the dynamics of marriage and divorce in our own time. From
women in leadership to dietary laws to human slavery, we read significant
portions of the Bible as culturally contingent.
      In addition to the cultural shaping of Scripture,
so much of sexual identity is culturally shaped – whether the mind-bending five
different gender categories of the Bugi people in Sulawesi (Paris, 26-27) or
the unique gender and orientation categories we have in the West. A faithful, exclusive
same-sex relationship of equals is a new thing, historically speaking, when
viewed against the backdrop of same sex practices in the ancient world in which
the Scriptures developed. It is so new, in fact, that I can say without
hesitation that this kind of relationship is never explicitly addressed by the
Scriptures.
      For that matter, the heterosexual marriage
of two equals who marry for love and expect to please each other sexually is likewise
a new phenomenon. So, while there is certainly cultural freight in the biblical
prohibitions of same-sex sex, we need to be careful not to overstate the case,
and we need to look for and recognize the theological arguments made in the
texts. In particular, in Romans 1 the text refers to the abandonment of natural
“function” in favor of what is contrary to “nature”. It is a theological
argument based on creation that is focused on male and female anatomy,
literally “function”. While modern genetic research into sexual orientation was
unavailable to Paul, his argument is theological in nature (pun intended) and I
have no adequate reason to assume that genetics would change the way he
expresses himself.
      Furthermore, to be confident that a
Scriptural theme is culturally relative, it really helps to have the Bible tell
us that is so. Over and over, it does, on a wide range of matters. For example:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no
longer male or female” (Gal 3.28). That will deconstruct every piece of
Scripture that people have twisted to support racism and human slavery or to keep
women out of leadership. But on the matter of sexual identity and same-sex sex
I have not found a parallel key. At one point, a few years back, as I was
reading through the Bible, I was sure I had found it and was absolutely
delighted. But, silly me, I didn’t write it down and haven’t found it again
since. Where did God misplace that Bible verse? I’m still looking and,
therefore, am not entirely satisfied with my thinking to this point.
Today’s
note sheet includes some resources for your further study and prayer. I
encourage you to check them out and to use this as a springboard to additional
conversation. Please continue to pray with us as we address these complex and
controversial questions, that we do so with grace, that we honor one another as
sisters and brothers, and that we pursue a path toward being of one heart even
if not of one mind. And, invite a friend!
Back
to the story of Judah and Tamar. If you fast-forward a couple thousand years
you read the genealogy of Jesus and discover that Matthew names four women, all
of whom were in irregular relationships, with irregular pregnancies, as
ancestors of Jesus. The first one in the list is Tamar. Now, if God can redeem
the so-called-righteousness of Tamar and Judah and turn it into our salvation,
then think what Jesus can do with our broken sexualities, our stories full of
grief and pain, our unfulfilled desires, our pent-up anger, our loneliness, our
abuse. We are not the “measure of our morality” (a la Paris), we are the
beloved children of God.
Resources:
      Janell Williams Paris (2011). The End of Sexual Identity: Why sex is too
important to define who we are.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

      Joel Shuman (2011). “Eating Together:
Friendship and Homosexuality,” chapter 34, The
Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics,
2nd ed. Edited by
Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.