Our congregation is hosting an interfaith conference this coming weekend on welcoming LGBT people into faith communities. I was honored to support the conference with this sermon debunking the supposedly anti-gay texts in the Bible and lifting up the affirming stories of same-sex relationships found in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
We began with a call to worship celebrating the love between two women, Ruth and Naomi:
Our Call to Worship comes from the Hebrew Scriptures,
the beautiful passage from the Book of Ruth so often read at weddings:
Entreat me not to leave thee,
or to return from following after thee:
for whither thou goest, I will go;
and where thou lodgest, I will lodge:
thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.
(Ruth 1:16–17, KJV)
These words, so traditional, so often read at weddings—
such a beautiful declaration of love from one person to another:
what we so often forget is that these are the words of Ruth
not to her husband, but to Naomi:
Ruth who loved Naomi so much,
she wanted nothing more than to be with her forever.
And was this not a holy love?
Whomever you love, you are welcome here.
Your love is a blessing to us all.
And here’s the sermon:
Part 1: The Tricky Texts
This past Thursday was the 25th annual National Coming Out Day.
Next Friday and Saturday, we’ll be welcoming people to our campus
for a conference on how faith communities can welcome people
of all different sexual and gender orientations.
In honor of these events I want to lift up two things from the heart.
The first thing is to proclaim to a world that still needs to hear it
that this congregation affirms the holiness of all loving relationships,
gay or straight, it does not matter in the least.
If you love each other and honor and respect each other,
we affirm and celebrate that precious and sacred gift.
Whomever you love, you are welcome here.
I am so thankful to be a part of this welcoming congregation
of respect and mutual appreciation,
our home base, our place of safety
from which we can reach out and share with the world
what we have found to be true and holy.
And the world needs us to do that, as people of faith.
Too many people in our community and around the country
still believe the Bible condemns homosexuality.
We also have probably heard this kind of Scriptural interpretation.
It’s in the air.
And if you haven’t actually read the Bible,
studied its history and its context and actually read the text,
how would you know otherwise?
But that’s not what I believe,
and that’s not the Bible I’ve gotten to know.
So today, I also want to lift up my conviction
that the Bible itself has gotten an incredibly bad rap
in our cultural conversations about sexuality.
I want to walk us through the key passages in the Bible
that many people say condemn homosexuality,
because I believe those texts have been thoroughly misread,
misinterpreted, and misused.
My hope today is to liberate those texts from false and bigoted readings,
to liberate you to have those conversations
with your family, your neighbors,
and to liberate a possibility that the Bible
might nourish you in your spiritual and ethical life.
After all, this is the sacred text
by which the Unitarian and Universalist ancestors of this church
oriented their entire lives.
Our faith today has grown out of a religious tradition
that loved the Bible
and loved to wrestle freely with its meanings.
That’s a tradition worth preserving.
So let’s get going.
There actually aren’t that many texts that come up in these debates,
and I think we can get to just about all of them.
The first is the biggest: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Can I see a show of hands—how many of you know this story?
And how many of you were taught that this was a story about homosexuality?
Actually, the scholarly consensus today is that
the story of Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t about homosexuality at all.
It’s about hospitality and how outsiders are treated.
The story begins with two angels descending to earth,
disguising themselves as men,
and visiting the town of Sodom.
When they arrive at the town gate, they meet a man named Lot,
Abraham and Sarah’s nephew,
who himself is a newcomer to the town.
Lot has no idea these guys are angels in disguise,
but he offers them a meal and a place to sleep.
This is what Genesis says happened next; it’s very dark:
“But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man,
surrounded the house; and they called to Lot,
‘Where are the men who came to you tonight?
Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’”
“Knowing them,” in this context, means “having sex with them.”
And they are not looking for consensual sex,
as we learn when the story goes on.
Lot refuses to hand over his guests,
and the men of Sodom start to threaten him too.
After all, he’s a newcomer, an outsider, not one of them.
Basically the men are demanding to gang-rape the visitors,
who, remember, are angels in disguise.
At this point, the story takes an even creepier turn.
Lot tries to cut a deal with the mob.
Leave my guests alone, he says,
and I’ll send out my two virgin daughters instead.
Can you imagine?
This is horrific, isn’t it?
Anyway, the mob refuses the deal and breaks down the door—
and the angels intervene just in time
to save Lot’s family and destroy the city.
That’s the story.
This is the story that too many people today read as an anti-gay story.
But please notice that there is nothing whatsoever here
about consensual sex, either gay or straight.
This story has nothing to do
with the kind of loving relationships that we affirm today.
It’s a story about a community ganging up
to violently assault strangers in their midst.
You should know, also, that there is a lot of discussion of Sodom
in the other books of the Bible,
and nowhere is it claimed that homosexuality was the sin of Sodom.
The prophetic book of Ezekiel, written in the 6th century BCE,
says, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom:
she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,
but did not aid the poor and needy.”
In the Gospels, Jesus says Sodom and Gomorrah
were hostile to visitors—nothing at all about sexuality.
So I would ask, if the Bible itself testifies
that Sodom’s sin was turning its back on strangers and poor people,
who are Biblical literalists to say otherwise?
So that’s one text.
Now, another tough couple of texts in the Bible
are in the book of Leviticus,
in which God gives Moses a lot of detailed instructions
about the ritual practices the people are supposed to follow.
It tells the Israelites how to make offerings,
and what kind of food is off-limits to them.
It’s got rules about farming and crop rotation.
It also talks a lot about sexuality.
So here’s Leviticus 18:22:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman;
it is an abomination.”
And Leviticus 20:13:
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman,
both of them have committed an abomination;
they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
Now at first this sounds straightforward, right?
We’re used to hearing this as a blanket condemnation of gay sex, right?
But let’s stop and analyze what’s really going on in these texts.
There are two points I want to make here.
One has to do with that famous word abomination.
The other has to do with
the kind of sexual practices they’re talking about.
So, first of all, I used to think abomination
meant something really horrible,
something any sane person would judge as wrong.
But, actually, that’s not what it means at all in the Hebrew Bible.
Actually, abomination in the Bible almost always means,
contrary to proper religious practice.
That isn’t the same thing as horrible or always wrong,
not by a long shot.
For example, Leviticus also says eating the meat of so-called “unclean” animals (what today we would call non-kosher”) is an abomination.
That means it’s against Israelite ritual practice,
not that it’s evil or inherently wrong.
It’s just something the Israelites aren’t supposed to do.
Another example: the historical books of the Bible
label some of the religious practices of other peoples as abominations, like building idols.
Again, this isn’t evil;
it’s just something the Israelites aren’t supposed to do.
So, OK, abomination doesn’t necessarily mean morally wrong or evil.
Second, and this is even more important,
most liberal Biblical scholars today
believe that the sexual practices Leviticus is talking about
are very specific kinds of homosexual behavior
that have almost nothing to do with gay relationships today.
The book of Leviticus is all about keeping the Israelites
from acting like their old neighbors in Egypt
and their new neighbors in Canaan.
And what was going on in Egypt and Canaan
was ritual prostitution in the temples.
Some men, as well as women, served as temple prostitutes
in rituals that were supposed to support fertility
and personal immortality.
As far as we know, that is the kind of sex Leviticus is talking about.
And, as I said, that really has nothing to do
with the kind of sexual relationships we have today.
When we look at the cultural context, as best we understand it,
Leviticus says only that it’s against the Israelite religion
for an Israelite man to have sex with a temple prostitute.
It does not say all sex between two men is bad.
In the Christian Scriptures,
one of the letters of Paul mentions male homosexuality
in a negative light,
but again we’re pretty sure it has to do with temple prostitution
rather than homosexuality in general.
And that is pretty much it for the whole Bible.
There’s hardly any mention in the Bible
of sex or romantic relationships between women,
with the possible exception of Ruth and Naomi,
whose story we heard a taste of in the Call to Worship.
Aside from the passages we’ve already dealt with,
there’s really no place else in the Bible
that criticizes or judges male homosexual behavior at all.
So what we’ve got so far is—nothing.
And that’s the good news!
Part 2: Affirming Images
The next big question is, does the Bible have anything positive to say about gay people?
And here the answer is, yes—it absolutely does!
There are at least two stories about men who love men in the Bible.
The first one is very famous.
Do you remember David?
David was the shepherd boy in the Hebrew Bible who killed Goliath
He was also deeply in love with Jonathan, the son of King Saul.
They love each other at first sight;
they are heartbroken when politics force them to separate.
When Jonathan is killed in battle,
David weeps and sings to him,
“greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.”
David, who went on to become
the most famous of all the kings of Israel,
was in love with a man,
openly in love,
openly grieving at his death.
It’s right there in the text.
Somehow we conspire not to see it,
but it’s right there.
The second story is not quite so obvious,
but when you take a look it’s quite wonderful.
This is the story from the Gospel of Matthew
of Jesus healing the servant of the centurion.
It begins with a Roman centurion, a military officer,
approaching Jesus and saying,
6‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed,
in terrible distress.’
The key word here is servant.
The word in the original Greek is pais.
This is a word that can mean a few different things.
It could mean “son” or “boy,” or it could also mean “servant.”
We can be pretty sure the centurion is talking about his servant,
not his son, because this story is told in the Gospel of Luke as well,
and Luke’s version has the centurion using a Greek phrase that means
So the person who’s sick is the servant or the slave of the centurion,
and an honored servant at that.
Now, that word pais also has a third meaning.
In the Greco-Roman cultural context,
if you were a man who wanted a love relationship with another man,
it was accepted that you could buy a servant or slave to be your lover.
And the word for that person was pais—
“a servant who is his master’s male lover.”
Put this together with the fact that this is the only story in the Gospels
of someone asking for healing for a servant, a social inferior,
and it begins to seem very likely that the centurion’s servant
was not an ordinary household servant, but his lover,
someone he cared for deeply enough
to run out into the street in front of everybody
and beg Jesus to heal him—
a Roman military commander,
one of the most powerful people in the town,
begging this poor Jewish guy, not even a Roman citizen,
to heal his lover.
And what does Jesus say?
He says simply7, ‘I will come and cure him.’
No hesitation, no need to think about it—simply, ‘I will cure him.’
In fact he praises the centurion for having so much faith in him.
‘Truly I tell you, in no one* in Israel have I found such faith.
11I tell you, many will come from east and west
and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
in the kingdom of heaven….’
Jesus is saying there is a place in the kingdom of heaven,
in the company of the children of Israel,
for this Roman military officer,
this man who trusted him to heal his lover.
13And [Matthew tells us] to the centurion Jesus said,
‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’
And the servant was healed in that hour.
And again I ask you:
If Jesus chose to heal a gay man’s lover
and to hold that man up as an example of faith,
who are we to say otherwise?
Now we here don’t need to be told
that every person’s love is precious.
This is something we know very deeply.
But I hope we can leave here with a deeper respect for the Bible,
this text that has been sacred to so many for so long.
If we come to it with an open mind and heart,
it can be for us an ally and a teacher.
It can connect us to our brothers and sisters
in other religious traditions—
it can help us talk to them and share our light with them.
And that is just what we can do—
that’s what our world is calling us to do in our time.
I’ll give the last word to the Gospel of Matthew:
You are the light of the world….
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,
but on the lampstand,
and it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine….
May it be so.
Amen and blessed be.