Sex and Culture

This is the last of this series of sermons on Power, Money and Sex. If you will recall, the subtitle of the series is Christian ethics in everyday living. Christian ethics in everyday living means trying to do the right thing in the situations we face and with the people we meet every day. Last week I talked about sex as a part – a big part of every human life. My main point was that sex is a good gift from God. It is a gift given by the Creator to be properly used and thoroughly enjoyed by humans. Today, I want to get a little more specific – especially about the issues of human sexuality that have for several decades dominated the conversation in our churches and in our culture.

Like any other set of attitudes and beliefs, our attitudes and beliefs about human sexuality are heavily influenced by our culture. To say otherwise would be dishonest. The church has always been in a kind of give and take relationship with culture – sometimes rising up in protest against some aspect of culture, sometimes championing a popular cultural cause. Yet as those who seek to be faithful to Jesus Christ, we can’t simply align ourselves with particular cultural attitudes or beliefs. Instead, we need to seek to discover what ways of thinking and feeling about, and acting on these sensitive issues are faithful to God whether or not culturally accepted. Being a cultural or political conservative or a liberal is not what really matters. Those labels tend to cloud what is really important. Faithfulness to God, as we understand faithfulness, is the single most important measure of any Christian attitude, belief, or practice. Though we are in the world and are necessarily influence by the world, we are not supposed be of the world. Is Jesus a liberal or a conservative? The question is nonsensical. Jesus is the light of the world and shines his searching and knowing light upon all.

As many of you know, the Presbyterian Church USA – our denomination – is in the midst of a time of discernment and change with respect to how we include in the life of the church sisters and brothers in Christ who are of differing sexual orientations. In two days our Presbytery – Wabash Valley – will vote on a proposed amendment to the church constitution that will permit churches and pastors to perform and celebrate same-sex marriages. Your Session, the elders you have elected to lead this particular church have been studying and praying about this question, and will continue to do. I do not speak for them, but I am personally in favor of this amendment and intend to vote for it. This is, for me, a matter of following in the Way of Christ. I’ll tell you why.

First, and above all else, I believe that the message of Christ is that God opens wide arms of welcome to all people. At various times in the history of the Christian church certain groups of people have been categorically excluded from full participation in the Christian community. At first the message of God’s forgiving and accepting love in Jesus Christ was thought to be for Jewish believers only. This seemed to be the message of Jesus himself. Here is a little story from the gospel of Matthew. “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”

I believe that what we see here is the beginning of a trajectory – a movement toward inclusion and away from exclusion. The trajectory continues through the book of Acts when Peter is sent to non-Jews with the inclusive word from God: “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.” This same movement toward inclusion reaches a kind of theological high point in Paul’s letter to the Galatians when he writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Here the apostolic message of inclusion in Christ is applied across all boundaries of race, sex, and social class.
Understanding the Way of Christ in terms of movement or trajectory toward inclusion has prompted the church to stand against cultural practices of exclusion and injustice. The church’s stand against slavery and all forms of racism, and the church’s demand for equal standing for women and for divorced people in all areas of the church’s life – are examples of how we have attempted to put into practice Christ’s way of welcome for all people – especially those who historically have been marginalized and left out. The church has shone as a light in the world in these ways.

There are those who say that the case with sexual orientation or gender identity is different. It is said that sexual orientation and gender identity is strictly a matter of choice, whereas biological sex (as I discussed last week) and race are not. Of course, this says nothing about divorce and remarriage. But we’ll set that aside for now. I will not take the time to go into detail here, but I strongly disagree that sexual orientation is a matter of choice. First, there is no solid scientific evidence to support that idea. On the contrary. The biological or genetic mechanics of sexual orientation appear highly complex, but evidence points away from choice. The science admittedly is not conclusive. But, science aside, gay or straight, almost nobody experiences sexual orientation, or gender identity (masculineness or feminineness) as merely a choice. If you are heterosexual, do you recall a time when you chose to be? I mean, if you feel desire for a person of the opposite sex, do you remember choosing that desire? You will certainly recall choosing to act or not act on your desires – that is what we all do. Because we believe that promiscuity – indiscriminate and casual sexual activity – is contrary to the purposes of God, gay or straight, we choose not to be promiscuous. I believe that sex within a covenanted partnership is the faithful way. And I believe that the majority pattern for marriage is one man and one woman. But I have to ask, does the fact of a majority pattern exclude the possibility of a faithful minority pattern? The point is this: if my basic sexual desire is a given, should I be expected to renounce, deny and repent of what God has given me? Why would I be expected to completely renounce my sexual orientation or sense of gender?

The answer that is most often given among Christians is, “Because the Bible says so.” I am not unfamiliar with the argument –taken from the Bible – or at least from certain passages in the Bible. But I believe that excerpting a few passages from their over-all context and applying them without taking into account the larger movement of scripture does not show a deeper faithfulness to scripture, but a more superficial. And it does not show a more faithful commitment to the Way of Jesus Christ. I read the other day a comment on the ongoing process of the proposed changes to the PCUSA constitution. I quote: “[T]he trend is clear: same sex marriage is going to [be] (sic) allowed in all PCUSA churches by all PCUSA pastors.” The author continued, “This is a clear departure from the plain meaning of the Scriptures on the subject. This is also a clear indication that the denomination has made up her mind to go her own way – in direct contradiction to the Way set forth by God.”

I find statements like this offensive in the extreme, and obviously I could not disagree more. Simply saying that something is “the plain meaning” of the scripture does not make it so. My study of the scriptures on the subject does not yield any such “plain” meaning. Instead, what I find is that principles of sound biblical interpretation show me that the few (perhaps seven in all) passages that deal with same-sex activity have nothing to do with what we know today as homosexual orientation. The best historical scholarship shows that what we know of today as homosexuality – that is a particular sexual orientation – was not even thought of in the biblical world. The fact is that when I apply the best practices of biblical interpretation, practices like Christ-Centered interpretation, interpreting scripture by scripture, and paying attention to biblical and historical context, I discover that these few passages are dealing with matters entirely other than homosexual orientation and same-sex marriage. They are dealing with matters like ritual purity, violence toward strangers, cultic prostitution, lax divorce laws, and the consequences of idolatry.

The Way set forth by God is the Way of Jesus Christ and is not necessarily made clear in a surface reading of a few passages in an English translation of the Bible. Jesus Christ himself is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In the Bible, Jesus has nothing whatsoever to say about same-sex orientation or same-sex relationship. What Jesus does have a lot to say about is inviting the outsider in, lifting up the oppressed, making room at God’s table for everyone, and giving his life for the reconciliation of all. This is the way set forth by God in Christ. I believe in this way with all my heart – and the PCUSA with all its shortcomings is in no sense departing from this way.

Finally, what does this all have to do with culture again? There are those who say that the stance of the PCUSA is not a light in the world, but a compromise with the world – a capitulation to cultural trends. But there are many cultural trends. Fox News and MSNBC both have their audiences. Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan both sit on the US Supreme Court. The fact that a dimension of the Way of Christ has some support in some aspect of culture is neither proves nor disproves it. Cultural approval or disapproval is not a measure of faithfulness. Let the culture wars rage on… our business is to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. Our business is to discover and live out in all the particulars of our world the Way of Jesus Christ.

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