Do you know what a guy says when he breaks up with a woman? He says, “I broke up with her.” But do you know what he says when the woman breaks up with him? He says. “It was a mutual decision.” Many years ago, I dated this woman named Karen, and well, when we broke up, it was a “mutual decision”.
Still I got over the hurt. We stayed good friends even. We’d grab a bite to eat or hang at the beach. We’d even talk about our love lives. One day, after a particularly tough romantic experience, I called Karen. I asked if I could come over to unload. But when I got there, I realized. She had something to share herself.
She told me in her quiet way, “Kennedy, I have something to tell you. I like girls.” Strangely enough, I wasn’t shocked. It made sense even. She told me. She had struggled with it her whole life. But only lately had she been willing to admit a truth she had known all along.
Later, she moved west to Iowa for graduate school. We kept in touch. We talked about her struggles as she dated women and yearned for a long term relationship. Then she met Lisa, a friendship that blossomed into love. A few years later, she and Lisa visited me at the church I pastored on Long Island. And I married them, with two of our church’s elders standing as proud witnesses.
Now Karen and Lisa have stayed together for 20 years. They have raised two sons that Karen conceived through artificial insemination. It hasn’t been easy. Both of their boys have special needs. One of them, Aidan, almost died, and for months, Karen lived in San Francisco as he went through surgery after surgery there. And Luca, their other son, has autism. But through it all, they have stayed together.
And Karen has always been a devoted Christian. That’s how we met. We both were working at the same church in New York City. We’ve often prayed together. Karen’s prayers have always lifted me up. And I’ve lifted up many prayers for her too.
But was I right to marry them? After all, Many Christians frown upon these relationships. These words from Ephesians that we read again today imply that marriage is something that happens only between men and women. So do these words apply to Karen and Lisa and others like them? These questions don’t only impact Karen and Lisa. They impact thousands, millions of people, who want to follow Jesus, yet are attracted to the same-sex. Are these two things incompatible? In the words we’re about to read, and in Jesus’ own words that we will explore too, God shows us the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Do these words apply to two men getting married or to two women? And the answer is that at least as they were written, they don’t. They don’t apply for good reason. In Paul’s day, these marriages didn’t even exist. And for that reason, you can’t look at this passage alone to understand what God has to say about same sex marriage. After all, the Bible doesn’t say anything about smart phones or cars or computers either. Why? Those things didn’t exist either.
But let’s be clear, same sex marriages didn’t exist, but same sex relationships certainly did. And the Bible has some choice words on those relationships, and they aren’t good.
Right at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he goes off on this mini-sermon on how awful pagan culture is with its idols and obsessions. And in the middle of it, Paul says this.
“Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either—women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.”
Wow, that doesn’t sound good. And it’s not. Paul is pointing to something that has as much relevance today as it did then. We live in a culture that has all sorts of sexual confusion and dysfunction. Tens of millions of people, gay and straight, look at pornography, and they pay the price in relationships caught up in a false sexuality that has no basis in reality. Way too many know the emptiness that comes from sex without love and commitment, and it is destroying them.
Yet interestingly enough, even as Paul is certainly against that behavior, that’s not why he is giving that sermon. Instead, Paul is using it to actually catch out religious people not pagan ones. In his words, he is setting up a sermonic surprise attack. You see. As Paul starts condemning pagan culture with its narcissistic and idolatrous ways, religious folks would have been eating it up. Yeah, Paul, you get ‘em; those nasty pagans with their depravity. But right at the end of the sermon, Paul throws a curveball. He says this.
Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.
Paul is telling them, your self-righteousness is blinding you. You need God’s grace and forgiveness as much as the pagans do, maybe more. The great Christian writer, C.S. Lewis put Paul’s point this way.
If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasure of power, and hatred….Thus a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.
Wow, C.S. Lewis had a way of putting things. But you still might be thinking. Ok, judgmentalism is bad, but still Paul does say those things about same sex relationships, doesn’t he? But here’s the problem. It’s the same challenge we ran into with the words in Ephesians.
Paul had no idea that a love based relationship between two people of the same sex could even exist. In his culture, the typical same-sex relationships were lust-based ones, things like older men having relations with teenage boys. That’s what Paul is focusing on here, what he knows.
Paul’s words don’t describe the relationship of my friends, Karen and Lisa. They haven’t turned away from God. Their relationship is not based on lust. It’s based on a deep love and commitment. Heck, it’s kept them together for 20 years. So, is there anything in scripture that could help us to understand whether a loving, committed same-sex relationship is morally right or wrong? There is. But it comes in a place you would not expect. It comes when Jesus talks about food.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says these shocking words, at least to his hearers.
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Now how do these words of Jesus’ give us guidance on same sex relationships? To see that, you
need to understand what Jesus is talking against, something called a cleanliness code.
After God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God gave them a complex set of these cleanliness codes to order their life. God called them for example to separate dairy products from meat ones. These laws had deep roots in spiritual understandings. For example, when you separate milk, the stuff that sustains a newborn creature, from meat, the flesh of a dead animal, you are symbolically separating life from death. But the codes carried more than just symbolic meanings. They helped Israel establish a clear identity, one that helped them from falling into the idolatry of their neighbors. So these cleanliness codes by Jesus’ day had become one of the key ways to tell how close a person was to God.
But here Jesus blows that apart. Jesus says. Outward actions don’t define your righteousness. The state of your heart does. Righteousness can’t go from the outside in. Righteousness has to come from the inside out. This may seem obvious to us. But in Jesus’ day, his words rocked the religious world.
His words blew away all the old categories of defining who is in and who is out. In the early church, it led them to welcome and include all sorts of people who before had been excluded. The early church welcomed Samaritans, even though in the past they had been considered un-clean. Then it welcomed eunuchs, even though sexual mutilated people had been considered unclean. Then the early church welcomed Gentiles, even though their dietary habits had before made them unclean. When a tension developed between an outer category that had previously made a person un-clean and the inner state of that person’s heart, the church followed Jesus’ example. They looked to the heart. These decisions did not come easily. No other decision generated more controversy than the dropping of the cleanliness code as a definer of one’s relationship with God. But the church did drop them.
Now what does this have to do with same sex relationships? Everything. A cleanliness code helps you define something’s proper place. If something’s not in its proper place, it’s dirty. It’s unclean. If meat gets mixed with dairy, the food becomes un-clean, and those who eat it become unclean. Now we don’t have nearly the cleanliness codes of Jesus’ day, but we do have some.
Let’s say you spill water on a table. Why when you do that, do you say the table is dirty? Did the drink transform into dirt when it hit the table? No, of course not. You know. The drink is not in its proper place. And thus it has become dirty. Drinks belong in cups. They don’t belong on tables.
It’s the same reason that when my nephew went to work in China, one of the first words he learned was the word for dog. Why? The idea he might unwittingly eat dog in a restaurant terrified him. Now, if he’d eaten dog, would he have died? No, dogs are perfectly fine to eat. But for most Americans, they’re not. Dogs belong in our backyards not on our dinner table. In other words, when it comes to eating, they’re not clean.
And in the Bible, concerns about same sex relationships rose up out of these cleanliness codes. Women and men go together. Women and women don’t. A man with a man is not in his proper place. He’s unclean. Now for the early church, they had no problem keeping this code in effect. Why? When they saw men with men or women with women, they did not see only an outward rule broken. They saw twisted hearts; the twisted hearts that Paul described in Romans.
But what happens when a couple doesn’t exhibit the twisted heart. What if they haven’t turned away from God? What if their relationship is not based on lust or idolatry but on love and commitment? What if their relationship enables them not to exchange the truth for a lie but the exact opposite? What if their relationship enables them to exchange a lie they’ve been living for a truth they’ve denied Do you continue to focus on the outward category or the heart? If you follow the direction of Jesus’s words, then you look to the heart.
So when I look at my friends’ faithfulness to each other, I see no contradiction between that faithfulness and their faithfulness to God. Two people can live in a committed, loving, same-sex relationship and live faithfully as followers of Jesus. In our own denomination, so many have come to this same conclusion, that it gives permission for pastors to marry folks of the same sex if they so choose.
Now, you might disagree with this interpretation. Many Christians do. But in the meantime, wherever you stand, let’s steer clear of judgment. It saddens me when I see Christians label other Christians as bigots or question others’ commitment to Jesus rather than try to understand their honest attempts to discern God’s will.
But how can you do that, when you feel so strongly one way or the other? You look to Jesus. You look to what God in Jesus did for you When God went through infinite agony on the cross, God did it because without it you had no chance. You had become so lost, so twisted up, that nothing less than the death of God could save you. But God loved you so much that God was glad to pay that price. Hebrews tells us that for the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross. And you are that joy. And when you know that, what God had to do to bring you home, it frees you from judging others. You realize that gay, straight or whatever, everybody is equally lost. And it frees you from judging yourself. Why? You see how infinitely God loves you, not because of what you do or not, but simply because you are. And when you know that love, you have a love that defeats disagreements; that defeats death; that defeats everything.