Mentioning the Unmentionable


Leviticus 18:22; 20:13-----Romans 1:18-32

Genesis 19:1-28


            Two years ago, on the same day when the Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, finally agreed to admit Blacks to full membership, a different drama was taking place at an Episcopal Church in the central [Contra Costa] county area. Nothing appeared in the papers about it. The issue at Plains Baptist Church was resolved far behind the times, for a Christian consensus on race had long since emerged among the churches.


            The drama in Walnut Creek was explosive, and still is by no means settled. Wise and faithful believers differ sharply on the subject of sexuality, especially homosexuality – and the Christian faith. At Walnut Creek, the official board was in the process of telling the Bishop that (and I quote) “this parish can be dismantled brick by brick before pastoral care will be extended to a member of the church who is a known homosexual.” Actually, the homosexual had sometime before been asked to leave the church. So irate and irrational was the rector he quoted as screaming, “I want to kill him; I want to kill him.” At the eucharist service one Sunday, he hurled communion wine at the gay member saying, “Boy, you’re sick. You’d better leave me alone, or else.” That such an event could take place illustrates how medieval some of our personal opinions and church practices remain.


            Ten years ago, the subject of homosexuality was unmentionable, untouchable. But now it is unavoidable, for it is at our doorstep. I would feel derelict in my professional duty as a pastor, if I did not share my perspective as a pastor, as a Christian, and as a human being. I am indebted to many persons --- Biblical scholars, pastors, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and law enforcement people --- for the refinement of my own conscience on the matter.


            I have talked with a number of pastors in our Northern California Conference who have encountered problems related to this subject. One told me of a Senior in the youth group who had a mysterious, suggestive encounter with his advisor; he is afraid, and talks with his pastor about it. Another minister told me of his church Board of Trustees having to make a decision on the Gay Caucus from one of the Berkeley seminaries asking to use the church facilities for a meeting. Another told of a wife who came to see him to talk about her discovery that her husband, the father of her four children, is gay. Another told of a worried father coming to talk to him, suspecting that his son is gay. Any one of these instances can trigger all the old stereotypes and phobias, and can cause individuals (and congregations) to react explosively, violently and with unkind judgments; judgments which do not help any individual; judgments that compound rather than relieve misery; judgments that evoke a behavior which utterly betrays the spirit of Jesus, whose name we bear.


            By mentioning the unmentionable today, I am letting you know that as a pastor, I cannot dodge this issue, and I am asking from you the good Christian grace that fosters healing and promotes acceptance, not the judgmental whisper and sneer that drives issues under the rug or back into the closet.


            Dealing as we are with such a highly charged, emotional theme makes it incumbent upon us to be as loving and as intelligent as possible. Speaking straight from the shoulder is all right, providing it originates a little higher up. Above all, it is our directive in this place, to consider this subject, this issue, in the context of the faith we profess as Christians. Those who are not or have not committed themselves to the Christian faith have no obligation to consider it by our standards --- but we do, or else our faith becomes a mockery, merely ornamental and irrelevant.


            Some may protest, “why deal with it here? There are so many other concerns of greater importance; so many people in the world whose basic human rights are endangered, so many hungry people. Why in a church service should we focus on sexual preference and bedroom habits?” Now, I can empathize with this. Ten years ago it would have been improbable that such a subject would be discussed in this place. But what was once an untouchable subject is now unavoidable. It affects more people that we suspect. Dr. Paul Gebhard, head of the Institute for Sex Research, commonly referred to as the Kinsey Institute, said, “When one speaks of homosexuality, one is talking about millions of people, not thousands, but millions of U.S. citizens.” Newsweek magazine put this figure at 20,000,000, about 9% of our population. I have been told by researchers that about five of every one hundred persons in the U.S. are exclusively homosexual throughout life, that one person in every three has had some homosexual experience. So sheer numbers alone warrant our consideration of the issue.


            In addition, Christian theology, Biblical understanding and our attitudes and practices in the church have helped to foster conditions of oppression which lesbians and homosexuals face each day. Generally, we in the Christian churches have proclaimed that homosexual acts are perverse, repugnant, sinful; that homosexuality is a distortion, whatever its source or cause, regardless of the power it may exert, must be resisted, and, if possible, rooted out. This teaching both reflects and confirms the thinking of the heterosexual majority, whose attitudes in turn create the context in which homosexuals live their lives. So, it should not surprise us that gay people do not look to the church for solace or support. And because of this situation of rejection prevails, homosexuals are frequently abused, ridiculed, caricatured, subjected to social exclusion and disdain. They are sometimes refused acceptance by their own families, often they are frozen out of religious fellowship and denied pastoral care. They are denied equal protection of their civil rights and equal access to vocational opportunities. Fearing reprisals if known to be homosexuals, the majority remain closeted, often suffering lives of loneliness and despair.


            There are so many things I cannot prevent or change --- earthquakes, cancer, death on the highway… But here in this subject lies a virtual continent of opinion; a landmass of tradition which we CAN change by using our minds and by making our hearts available to the message and the Christian faith. I have not had to deal with this matter personally, but in my acquaintance are pastors who have, and who have shared with me their excruciating pain. The cruelty they have seen compounded and perpetrated in the name of religious tradition caused them to weep. I must confess that when our Conference faced this about five years ago, I became very disturbed at some of the medieval attitudes and uninformed opinions that were aired. I hope that daring to mention the unmentionable can in some way reshape the climate, shift our attitudes, and stimulate the use of our MINDS, not in the name of sexuality, but in the name of justice and love.


            No one, least of all myself, has a corner on wisdom, or a private line to the heart of Almighty God, as some would lead us to believe. The fact that I speak my conscience here, does not mean YOUR conscience must concur. I rejoice that our life together is not defined by whether or not we agree, but IS defined by the mutual regard we have for one another and our common commitment to love God and to love our neighbor. No one is obligated to move further on this issue than his or her conscience will permit. But if I am silent because of the opinions I hold, my love for my church may well diminish, because I withhold the trust that accompanies candor. Today I risk sharing some convictions on an explosive subject, and I’m bold to do so because I trust you. I trust you to listen with care; I trust you to distinguish between what I say and what I don’t say; I trust you to listen with MINDS as well as with any biases that may have accumulated. I trust you to ask for clarification where I am unclear, and to realize that I am NOT saying you must agree with me.


            I’m sure that the situation would be helped and our prejudices combated if we had more of a sense of history, if we could clearly see and feel the age-old oppression of gay people. In nearly every society, in every civilization, in every age, gay people have suffered terrible persecutions and oppression. In the medieval period they were burned at the stake, and the little sticks they used for firewood were called “faggots.” Today you can here that same word in the schoolyards here in Antioch, even to the lower grades – and most of the little ones don’t know what it means, according to the mother of one first-grader.


            Throughout history gays have suffered imprisonment, torture, mutilation, and death. In our own time, in so many cities, they have difficulty finding apartments, writing wills, keeping their own children in case of divorce. They are frozen out of religious fellowships and denied pastoral care; they are denied equal protection of their civil rights. They have been harassed by the police, and have not only been haunted but HUNTED. I wonder if in recognizing this oppression and persecution, our own prejudices cannot be lessened, for is it not right that this heritage of torture should cease? Isn’t it about time we took seriously the views of the medical establishment? In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, even as it did alcoholism 25 years earlier. It also recommended that all laws against gay people be abolished as they were discriminatory. In clarifying the matter, it said that homosexuality was different from heterosexuality but no better and no worse. It represents NO impairment of the personality, no lessening of ability.


            Our attitudes and policies are often based on the assumption that the gay person is willfully, determinedly, rebelliously deciding on a lifestyle that he or she is at liberty to choose. However, that assumption does NOT square with the facts. Nearly all gay persons are unable to alter by choice their sexual orientation, and the medical field admits that psychotherapy has been notoriously unsuccessful at trying to do so.


            I wonder if the situation might be helped if we could consider about whom we are talking, and by means of that consideration puncture the stereotypes that shape our opinion. We are inclined to think that a gay mail is a person who works in a beauty parlor by day and walks the Castro St. in San Francisco by night; that a gay female is a large heavy-set woman who teaches weight-lifting at the YWCA. But this is nonsense. It is not possible to recognize gay people by manner, gesture, or appearance. There is not a trade or profession in which gay persons are not present. They are workers, writers, ministers, philosophers, pro football players, and political personalities that have become household words.


            I also wonder if the situation might not be helped if we recognized how the emphasis is misplaced. It suffers from a certain exaggeration. The subject of a gay lifestyle comes up and we’re outraged. I cannot think of anything more abhorrent and unnatural than sex without consent. I found the fear and violence on the San Jose State University campus much more unnatural and abhorrent than the Homosexual lifestyle that sets off rockets in our dinner table conversations.


            Also, consider the crime statistics. This was the big issue in Dade County, Florida. The charge was and is that gay people are somehow a threat to young people in the classroom. This too is an opinion that does not square with the facts. Whether you look at local police, county police, or FBI records, it is very clear that in proportion to their numbers, gay people commit far fewer crimes than their heterosexual counterparts, I mean far fewer crimes of every sort. If you consider sexual crimes, the contrast is more dramatic. If we were to hire people in our public school systems on the basis of crime statistics, people like Anita Bryant and myself would be among the last hired. For we heterosexuals have the worst record. By ignoring this data, we perpetuate terrible myths which add to oppression.


            You see, one response by the CHRISTIAN to this enormous issue is to get the facts straight. There is so much we DON’T know about human sexuality. The Christian tradition has a very poor record when it comes to understanding sexuality or embracing it freely. The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder, at how intricate the entire subject is. I sometimes wish I could be as sure of anything, as some people seem to be of everything. Mark Twain said, “It ain’t so much that folks don’t know, but it’s that they know so much that ain’t so.”


            As a church, we hold to the centrality of Scripture as a reliable guide to faith and life. So attention to the Bible and the Christian heritage is an obligation for all of us who call ourselves ‘Christian’ and consider ourselves church people. We are not at liberty to live out our biases, or parental programming or childhood experiences. What we do and say has to square with our Biblical heritage and Christian theology. On the subject of homosexuality, the Bible is much LESS helpful than some of us would like to think.


            At no point, for example, does the Bible say anything about homosexuality as a sexual orientation. The recognition of homosexuality as a psychic or psychological orientation is quite recent. The Bible does refer to certain homosexual acts, but it is crucial to keep in mind that in each instance these acts are presumed to be undertaken by those who are heterosexually oriented, and are thus a violation of their normal, fundamental, heterosexual nature.


            There is also an overpowering pro-creation bias among Biblical writers. Prosperity in the town, success on the battlefield, survival in the fields, were all dependent on large families. Any act which thwarted the conception of children was frowned upon and condemned.


            The dramatic destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with sulfur and fire from heaven, as related in Genesis 19:1-28, has become a typical text used by churches to support repressive laws against homosexuals. Fear that we would all perish in a similar fashion if we allow such practices to go unpunished has led to brutal treatment of homosexuals. This perspective is used by Anita Bryant to support her preposterous theory about how the California drought was due to God’s outrage over gay life in San Francisco. Would she also suggest that the rains that came indicated God’s mind had changed? Biblical scholars and interpreters severely challenge such use of Biblical texts. Contemporary studies persuasively suggest that the major theme in the story is not homosexual activity per se, “but the breach of ancient Hebrew hospitality norms and the persistent violation of rudimentary social justice…”, that is, evil living in general and idolatry in particular. In Genesis 19:5, we find the words “That we may know them.” According to one Biblical scholar, Robert Treese, the Hebrew word “yadha” (to know) in this passage is used only 10 times in the Old Testament to donate sexual acts, always heterosexual, whereas it is used 941 times simply to denote “getting acquainted with.” While many Old Testament references cite Sodom and Gomorrah as a proverbially wicked city, none cite homosexual acts as the reason for this designation. Actually, Ezekiel cites pride and refusal to aid the poor and needy as the reason for Sodom’s destruction. A similar analysis happens when Paul’s passage in Romans is examined carefully. Some critics see this text with its reference to lustful passions as a condemnation of ANY exploitive sexual relationship which is based only on self-gratification. And of course this condemnation comes down equally hard on heterosexuals.


What happens when we look at the teachings of Jesus? Here the crusader against gay rights is in deepest trouble. Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality, not one word. Clearly, Jesus was bothered more than anything else by pious rule-makers and self-righteous judges. It is simple to list the parables, the Sermon on the Mount, the encounters with Pharisees, which illustrate the gospel of grace and forgiveness He incarnated. In Jesus’ encounter with the woman, according to John’s account, in no way did he condone adultery. But what “ticked” Him off was the sneering condemnation and the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. I do not see Jesus as naively permissive, but it is clear that while condemning forthrightly when he saw it, He seemed to reserve His wrath for all those who lived by rules and ignored (Matthew 23) “the weightier matters of the law…justice, mercy, faithfulness.”


            The Apostle Paul’s distaste for the common Greek and Roman sexual practice is undoubtedly sharpened by his strict upbringing in the Jewish law and traditions, with their stern strictures concerning homosexuality. He also condemns homosexual acts because he sees them as a natural result of false worship, and links this practice with other activities which he observes in those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ (cf. I Cor. 6:9-10) and worship the one true God of Israel.


            It is very strange that even though the GOOD HOUSEKEEPING magazine and a TV network ranked Anita Bryant as one of the ten most admired women in 1977, the youth and young adults, according to a different poll, placed her at the bottom of a list along with Adolph Hitler. She is lovely, sincere and zealous, but she has polarized the population, and mobilized hate and oppression. And she has done it in the name of religion and with a Biblical interpretation that is medieval. By enflaming national prejudice, fostering fear and hatred, and distorting Scripture to her own ends, she falls under the same judgment she so handily dispenses to others.


            I am no dreamy-eyed liberal in this matter. The acceptance, regard and liberty I think gay people are entitled to, is not without limits. Promiscuity and idolatry in gay life styles is on the same shaky ground as it is for heterosexuals. For any of us to make sexuality the central organizing principle of our lives, which American culture and media constantly seem to promote, makes us subject to the judgment of idolatry. A Christian sexual ethnic emphasizes commitment and trust, tenderness, respect for the other, and a desire for ongoing and responsible communication. It mandates against selfish sex, casual sex, impersonal sex, cruel sex, obsessive sex, prostitution, promiscuity, or any sex in which there is no sense of full responsibility. Such an ethic is as appropriate for the homosexual as it is for the heterosexual. Each is judged by it, there is no double standard.


            Contrary to the American folk ethic, sexual freedom is not the goal of all living. You can sell toothpaste and deodorants with that assumption, but it does not stand up to Christian principles. As important as sexuality is, there are things that are more important. Self-esteem is more important; survival as a race, as a planet, is more important; peace is more important. And love is more important than sex.


            I believe in love; not a naïve love, not a soft and weak love; but a full and mature love, love such as was and is shown in Jesus whom I believe had a human as well as a divine nature. I don’t think anything in society can ultimately prevail over and against real love – not oppression, not hatred, not prejudice. Sometimes it’s not easy to keep believing that, but I do. That’s why I’m in the church. Love “bears all things”; as Paul says, “There is nothing love cannot face; no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance.” Many families need to hear that and move closer to the state of being in which “there is no such thing as (or no possible distinction between) Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female (Gal. 3:28).



God of all truth: save us from cowardice that shrinks from new truth, laziness that is content with half-truth, arrogance which thinks it possesses all truth; in the name of Him who is the Way, the Life and the Truth which makes us free. AMEN.