Archive for November, 2003

Preparation for the Second Coming

Sunday, November 30th, 2003
Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

One of the great things about Advent, is that you don’t have to figure out whether you are coming or going. On the one hand Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year and looks back to the historical coming of Jesus, a kind of preparation for Christmas. The overwhelming emotion for this sense of Advent is gratitude, gratitude for the birth of the Christ, gratitude expressed in the giving of presents to those whom we love and who are in need. Our Marshian Fellowship next weekend, in cooperation with a high school youth group, will take presents to the children of people who are incarcerated. We all will do special deeds of kindness this next month in gratitude for God’s grace. People will make extra charitable donations between now and Christmas not only because of the tax advantage, for which God be praised, but also because it is the season of sharing out of gratitude. (Please remember Marsh Chapel, you in the radio audience as well as you in the building!) The Thanksgiving celebration this past week has been a liturgically appropriate warm-up for the Advent remembrance of Jesus’ first coming. When we sing carols such as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” we celebrate the commemorative interpretation of Advent, looking back to the first coming of Jesus. The text from Jeremiah is about the promise of that.

On the other hand, Advent looks to the second coming of Jesus, which is the subject of the texts from First Thessalonians and Luke. First Thessalonians begins with the gratitude theme: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” The apostles preaching the historical Jesus had birthed this wonderful congregation of Gentile Christians. The passage ends with reference to the second coming: “And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” In the passage from Luke, Jesus was speaking of the coming cataclysmic judgment of the world, not necessarily his own second coming. Nevertheless he was sharply clear that we stand under judgment, that the signs of the times showed his audience that they were ripe for judgment, and that people should live always on the edge, ready to face judgment.

Biblical scholars are rather agreed now that Jesus himself, from what we can find in the New Testament, believed that the end of the age would come within his lifetime, that God would overthrow the powers of injustice and set Jesus up as the messianic ruler over the entire world, established as king in Jerusalem where all the nations would come to acknowledge the God of Israel. One tradition in scripture is that he elevated twelve disciples because there were twelve tribes of Israel that needed special sovereignty. What a shock it must have been when Jesus realized he would be crucified instead, with no angels to save him at the last moment! His cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was all the more heart-rending in light of his earlier expectation. Amazingly, after he was crucified the disciples did not collapse in shock but met him raised in many places. They spread the word that he would come again soon and bring about a truly world-changing judgment. Paul reflected this belief in 1 Thessalonians when he said that, although a few of the congregation had died before Jesus’ second coming, most of them would still be alive. He wrote in chapter 4, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.”

Now I don’t know what you think about this marvelous vision of Jesus coming from above to bring his people out of the sinful world that we know. It certainly is a different tradition from the alternative vision Jesus himself seems to have had in which the world we know would be changed and ruled with righteousness. Many Christians today prefer the latter, hoping for divinely enabled liberation and the establishment of a just society. Many others, however, find inspiration in the Left Behind series of science fiction books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHayne. That series picks up on images from the Book of Revelation to depict a titanic struggle between God and the Anti-Christ that ends with a Pauline-like destruction of the world and a heavenly fulfillment for the relatively few righteous people.

Jesus of course did not come back according to Paul’s timeline, and the New Testament writers had to cope with that. The author of 2 Peter held that Jesus would return and destroy the godless, but much later because a day for God is like a thousand years for us. The author of Ephesians and Colossians, as well as John the Evangelist, rethought matters of the end-time to invent what is called a “realized eschatology.” A realized eschatology says that Jesus has already established our right relation with God and that we already have our place with God eternally even though we have to live out our lives within the ambiguities of history. If Paul was the author of Ephesians and Colossians, as the tradition holds, he must have changed his mind when Jesus did not return as expected.

I hold to a realized eschatology myself and believe that we have eternal life within the eternal life of God. Our temporal life that we live a day at a time is only a part, an abstract part, of who we really are and we can expect historical life to keep on going pretty much the way it has, with trials and tribulations, ambiguities and fragmented projects. Our temporal obligation is to live as justly, piously, faithfully, and hopefully as we can. The historical Jesus was received by the first disciples in a way that began the extraordinary Christian movement of people who know how to live their lives in time with their eyes on eternity. Whereas most people think temporal life is all there is, and are alienated from a God who would create them in such a life filled with suffering and death, Christians know that wholeness is only within the eternity of God. Christ’s faithfulness on the cross to commend his soul to God even when he believed God had forsaken him points to that larger reality. Temporal life is transformed as resurrected life when, like Jesus, we live in that faith. We are New Beings in Christ because we live with an orientation to God’s eternal life in which the entire created cosmos lies.

Or are we such New Beings? All the imagery about signs of the end and Jesus’ second coming makes us ask whether we do in fact live with a proper orientation to God. Do we live with charity like God’s fecund creativity, or do we hoard and cheat to make a buck? Do we insist on justice and suffer the consequences of that insistence, or do we temper our righteousness to accommodate the powerful. Do we study to understand, and practice to perfect, our piety before the eternal God, or do we leave holiness for holidays? Do we conform our temporal lives to the joy, humor, and seriousness of God’s eternal, ultimate perspective, or do we look to religion to get out of life more?

Jesus’ warnings about the signs of the end are good ways to think about our temporal lives in light of eternity. If this were our last day, are we ready for judgme
nt? If not, then please attend to what must be done. Our eternal identity is to live out our lives in time, responsibly, and under judgment. God is incarnate in temporal life precisely so that we can live concretely in time for eternity. Jesus’ first Advent was quite sufficient to give us the direction, power, church institutions, and loving friends we need for living life to the full all our days. No suffering exists that we cannot bear, because grace abounds. No justice obliges that we cannot die for, because God’s grace abounds. No creature exists that we cannot love, because grace abounds. No situation is so bad we cannot engage it with faith, because grace abounds. No separation from God can destroy our hope to see our eternal home, because grace abounds. God’s grace is sufficient, and the church proclaims Jesus Christ as the Lord of grace. Jesus came once and changed the world. He comes again every day to measure our temporal life by its eternal standards.

I invite you therefore to enter into Advent by making Jesus’ story part of your life. He was a young man so winsome, the story goes, that people gave up their livings to follow him around. He taught them to be peacemakers, to be non-judgmental and merciful, and to figure out ways to love one another with a divine passion. He told those who would hear to wake up to the fact that their small lives were part of a divine reality, and not to sleepwalk their days. He showed people by innocent parables that they were under judgment for how they love their neighbors and God. Though innocent of wrongdoing he ran afoul big-time politics, according to the story, and was crucified to death as a criminal, a winsome young man racked to gore. Then he rose from the dead in a victory over suffering and death, and the story becomes cosmic. He turned his disciples from distraught losers into apostles of new life. He became for them a deity from heaven, not only a man from Nazareth. His story grew so that he was one with God, as much God as the Father, King of the universe, Creator of the cosmos, Savior of all souls. And yet his story is that he can be your friend and mine as we imagine a way together with him, our confidant, the one who knows us best, who demands honesty, who leads us through despair to more life, our best lover, our winsome beloved. His story is that we can look upon our death as going home to him, a joy that defeats death’s sting. I invite you to tell yourself into Jesus’ story and become a New Being, free, unafraid, a lover of God and God’s creatures. The Church is a way into that story, and I invite you to join your story with those of other Christians as part of Jesus’ life. We do that now by calling for the Christ who came once to come again, now, that we might be in him in eternal living, deniers made penitent, losers made winners, sinners made saints, the corrupt made holy, the dead made live, awake, attuned, engaged, embraced, beloved, lovers.

Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

What to Do with Sin

Sunday, November 16th, 2003
1 Samuel 1:4-20

Hebrews 10:11-25

Mark 13:1-8

Most of the time we preachers deal with topics that are so mysterious we don’t really know what we are talking about, or that require so much specialized expertise of sorts we lack that we speak in ignorance. Yet we must address those topics in order to remain true to the gospel. Today’s topic is different, however: sin. Sin is no mystery, and I am expert in it. Sin comes up at this moment in the Christian calendar because Advent is only two weeks away and sin is that from which the advent of Jesus Christ is supposed to save us. The text from 1 Samuel was used by Christians to pre-figure the birth of Jesus: Hannah is a bit like Mary, and little Samuel grew up to save Israel. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1 is a self-conscious parallel to Hannah’s song of thanksgiving in 1 Samuel 2, both of which texts are in your bulletin insert. Our text from Mark is an apocalyptic discussion of waiting for Jesus’ second coming, a premature topic when we haven’t considered the first coming yet. Today the word of God is about the human condition and how Jesus stands in relation to that.

Sin is a double offence, outward and inward. Most obviously sin is an offence because of the harm it does to people or things. What to do with this aspect of sin is, first, avoid sinning, second, make amends when you have sinned, and, third, expect to pay an appropriate price for the harm done others, our environment, our institutions, or ourselves. The second kind of offence is that in sinning we make ourselves into sinners, compromising the contributions we might make to the righteousness of the cosmos and putting us before God as deviant from the holiness we should have in gratitude for creation. Whereas the first, outward, aspect of sin is a moral problem, the second aspect is religious, sin against the inward heart. The religious dimension of sin is that it alienates us from the Ground of our Being that gives us a context in which we both are free enough to be responsible and are surrounded by choices in which our obligation is to choose the best option insofar as we can know that.

The religious problem is what to do with the religious offense in sinning. Ancient Israel understood the situation this way. God had laid down on Mt. Sinai an elaborate set of rules for what we would call both moral and cultic or ethnic behavior. The Ten Commandments and many other rules are moral in our sense of the term. Rules about what foods are unclean and should not be eaten, or what kinds of fabric you can combine in a garment, are cultic or ethnic, special practices that distinguished Israel from the surrounding nations. Because Israel was ordained to be a whole nation of priests, according to the covenant with Moses, its very identity depended on keeping the rules of the covenant. Of course, infractions of the covenantal rules were inevitable, and often unintentional. So in addition to prescriptions to pay for the sins where possible respecting the outward offence of sin, the Mosaic covenant established a variety of ritual sacrifices that restore the individual offender and the whole people to a right relation with God. The priests who conduct the sacrifices are the people’s special representatives to God.

This situation is a profound expression of God’s seemingly conflicting traits of righteousness and mercy. On the one hand God sets up the covenantal rules for right living before the righteous divine majesty, thus in effect establishing the ways by which people can become alienated from the divine majesty, sin in the sense of breaking the covenantal conditions. On the other hand God sets up the atoning sacrifices that allow sinners to be returned to right relation with God, restoring Israel to the status of a nation of pure and holy priests who can approach the divine majesty. God is righteously demanding, and yet merciful to sinners.

We sophisticated late-modern people—some of you young folks might even be postmodern—are likely not to be able to take the ancient account of Israel’s covenant at face value. Many people today are unwilling to believe in a God whom they believe sets up rules to trip us and then condescendingly establishes ways to pick us up again. Such an image of God is not only too anthropomorphic, it depicts God as an adolescent. Yet I ask you to think outside the scriptural language for a minute.

We find ourselves in a world filled with things and ways with varying values. Because we are free to choose among different ways to go, we know that some of those ways are destructive of important values and others are productive of them. Some options are better than others. Situations sometimes are so complex that it is hard to tell which are the better choices. Most often, however, we do know what is right and what is wrong. We are obligated to choose the better course precisely because that is the better course to choose: that’s the meaning of obligation. When we do the worse rather than the better, there are two results. The first is that the world is worse off by our choice than it would be had we chosen differently. The second is that we make ourselves into bad choosers. We give ourselves the moral character of being the people who made these wrong choices when we could have made better ones. Rarely is our moral character wholly determined by one choice. It develops over a lifetime of choices, some bad, some good, some important, others trivial, some made with deliberate intent, some with thoughtless inadvertence. Moral character is extremely complex. Yet it is what we make of ourselves through the lifetime of conditions in which we have to live. Although throughout our lives we are connected to other people and environing conditions in many ways, and most of our actions are not ours alone—we act conjointly with others—the one thing for which we have sole responsibility is the building of our own moral character.

Deep in our heart each of us knows that our moral identity is who we are before God, who we are in ultimate perspective. Our moral character in this sense is our religious identity. We know we are responsible for it, and we have a good idea just what our character is. And it is terrifying. In our best moments we rush to do better and make amends for our sins, that is, to deal with the first, outward, offense of sin, the actual harm done. Even if our efforts at amendment are successful, however, the moral character we previously created for ourselves remains, only to be supplemented by new virtue, not erased.

And so we talk fast to persuade ourselves and others that our own moral character is not important. We talk about the causes served and the harms done, calling attention away from ourselves. If circumstances push hard at us we explain ourselves as pawns of the forces of history, as the products of problematic families, as victims of a deprived environment, as participants in a story where others are the powerful agents. The faster we talk the less convincing we are. We can’t stop talking because we know that if we did we would hear the truth. Yet we become anxious because we realize we are in denial. We can’t sit still because of our need to be occupied with busyness that distracts us from the inner life. But as we fall asleep at night or wake in the morning, as our thought-controls loosen, the truth sneaks up on us. It’s like suddenly meeting God the Judge: we are caught naked.

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become

night,’

Even the darkness is not dark to you:

For the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139)

Even though the Psalmist says we cannot escape God in any way, that is good news.

The bad news is that the Psalmist might be wrong. We who rush about too much live in fear that we are empty inside. If we deny ourselves long and hard enough, we can convince ourselves that we have no true self, no moral character at all, that we do not exist as personally responsible people. This is not happy Buddhist emptiness, a cleansing doctrine of no-self. It is an implosion of identity. Although God might be everywhere, we are nowhere. When we turn at last to the inward life, no one is home. Having denied it, we look frantically for our inward life of moral and religious character and it is gone. In ultimate perspective our existence is lost. We are dead before God and ourselves and in horror we know that we will that. This is the seriousness of sin.

With half my heart I wish you all can live in cheery oblivion of sinful offense against the inward life. I hope you approach the world so as to fix it up and suffer only mild pangs of conscience that you don’t allow to accumulate as a moral character. But with the other half of my heart, I wish you can face the truth and attend to the facts of your inward life, for this is what the Christian gospel addresses.

The Letter to the Hebrews, read today and for the last several Sundays, says that Jesus is a High Priest who can offer sacrifices that atone for our sins. Moreover, Jesus himself is the sacrifice, more precious than sheep or bulls, that completely redeems us. Jesus’ sacrifice took place once and for all. Our sins, real as they are, no longer count against our moral character unless we hold on to them.

Now you might not like the sacrifice imagery in Hebrews, which comes from the Old Testament approach to sacrifice. But what it means for the Christian gospel is that we are accepted by God in ultimate perspective. Our moral character, sins included, is acknowledged, registered, and accepted. This is who we are, and who we are is accepted. We do not have to deny ourselves, for even the worst about us is accepted. We should have done better, but still we are accepted. We should do better in the future, but no matter what we do, we are accepted.

If we thought our souls were empty, that was a mistake because they are full of God loving us. If we thought we were dead in the inward parts, that was a mistake because God’s life is there, cradling the intimate faults and virtues of our truest self. If we thought we were lost on the wings of the morning or at the farthest limits of the sea, that was a fault of our vision because, even in our flight from God, God accepts us fugitives. If we thought there was no one home in the dark night of the soul, that was a fault of our vision because God accepts even our will to be nothing. The Psalmist was not wrong: not even nothingness can separate us from the love of God.

Jesus summed up the tension between God’s righteousness and mercy as ever-present creative love, like a father’s, and he taught his disciples to live in love with one another. Jesus’ model of how to live before God as a redeemed sinner changed history. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews symbolized this with the imagery of Jesus as both the Supreme High Priest who can purify us so that we can be taken directly into God, and as the sacrifice itself that makes us clean. Our purification never means denying who and what we really are. We have to be loved for ourselves, or not loved at all, for God knows our inward parts, as the psalmist said: we are who we are in ultimate perspective, and that is accepted into the divine life.

The passage from Hebrews ends, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” As we “see the Day approaching,” which is to say that we think of ourselves in ultimate perspective, I invite you to meet together with those sinners redeemed by Christ, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Enter more fully into the community of friends to find courage for living life with all possible fullness, putting sin in its proper place. Sing with us to sin less in the outward ways of harming the world. Sing with us the freedom of the inward life from sin’s bondage, guilt, denial and death. Sing with us a new life made possible by the New Life in Christ whose advent we are coming to celebrate. Come sing again this song of redemption that accepts us in ultimate love and gives us personal status and eternal life before God. For, when you know redemption’s song deep in your heart, only then can you learn the better song that lovers sing to God, our Beloved. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

On Marriage

Sunday, November 9th, 2003
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

Because of the controversies in Vermont and Massachusetts over the legality of gay and lesbian people to marry, or have civil or holy unions, it is imperative for responsible preaching to address the issues and not duck them to avoid controversy. I apologize to those who believe it to be unseemly to discuss topics like this from the pulpit, yet feel obliged to do so because of their deep religious significance and urgency: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Council will decide the Commonwealth’s cases momentarily. Today I will conclude a series of four sermons about deep emotional moral conflicts within the Church, and also local society, illustrated with discussions of homosexuality. If you want copies of the previous sermons, they are posted on the Marsh Chapel website, or you can call, write, or email the chapel. Next Sunday I return to lectionary preaching in preparation for Advent.

The wonderful story of Ruth, part of which was read, testifies to the profound loyalty that the Moabite woman Ruth had for her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi after the death of her husband, Naomi’s son. In our texts from Ruth, Naomi tells her daughter in law to get into bed with Boaz so as to seduce him. Boaz, seduced, then acquires a field that belonged to Naomi, and with the purchase of the field he also acquires Ruth as a wife. The point of the story is that the child Ruth has by Boaz will support Naomi in her old age (and will be the ancestor of King David who is thus not a pure Israelite). Marriage is represented as the commercial transaction of buying a wife motivated by sexual attraction; the function of children is as much support of the elders as carrying on the lineage; and the only love in anything like the modern sense is that between the older and younger women who were in-laws through a previous marriage.

With regard to the legitimacy of contemporary gay and lesbian marriages, we need first to ask about that sense in which marriage is a civil union. The civil aspect of marriage does not require love but it does require a contractual agreement to function in society as a couple. In our society, the marriage contract does not treat women as commercial property. The marriage contract does define such things as tax status, rights to insurance, to health benefits, to disposing of estates at death, and to the care of and responsibility for children.

Like heterosexual married people, some gay and lesbian people, though by no means all, want to live together as couples, developing the domestic, economic, social, and legal roles of couples. Some political figures in Massachusetts who now oppose marriage in the full sense for same-sex couples have proposed to legalize civil unions that give such couples the legal benefits of marriage. This is the law now in Vermont. I see no reason whatsoever not to go along with civil unions in this sense. Viewed strictly as a civil contract, marriage makes a couple with roles of economic and domestic rights and responsibilities. If gay and lesbian people want to enter into such a contract there is no reason not to allow it. In fact, to disallow it deprives homosexual people of a legal right to enter into certain contracts solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, which is wholly irrelevant to their ability to observe the contracts, to benefit from them, and to contribute to society in the ways that justify civil marriages for heterosexual people.

For most people today, however, marriage means much more than a civil contract and this colors how they think about the matter of civil unions. Let me attempt to describe this richer reality of marriage in neutral terms. Imagine society, if you will, as composed of a vast ritual dance of interconnecting social roles. I use the phrase “ritual role” in a Confucian sense to mean a general form for interacting with other people and social institutions, like learned stylized steps in a dance. A ritual is a coordination of many such roles in a complicated social dance. A society has rituals within rituals within rituals. Within a society’s system of rituals lies a utilitarian core so that the economic, domestic, justice, military and other necessary functions are satisfied more or less. Yet the rituals are far richer than their utilitarian functions. They convey the emotional and value-oriented elements of civilized culture, providing both meaning for human life and ordered ways by which human aspirations can be cultivated and satisfied. A society’s rituals are dysfunctional when they do not convey the intense satisfactions of civilization, including religious ones.

A ritual role by itself is a kind of abstract form, like the role of being a “student,” which means fitting into general patterns of how to spend the day studying, having certain kinds of friends, dressing within the student dress fashions, living around libraries, dormitories, and the like. Each individual has to individuate the social roles in exactly his or her own way. No one is a student in general, only a student in particular, and many different ways exist for individuating student rituals. Personal identity cannot be defined fully in terms of the abstract ritual dances in which one engages, although that is the way we begin to get acquainted—“What do you do? Where do you live? Tell me about your family.” Full personal identity is the individuation of those ritual roles with one’s own impulses, chemistry, and inward life. In our individuation of social roles we play them more or less well, often very poorly, like D students.

Marriage in our Western society is a very complex ritual dance set among other social rituals. It has all the functional ritual roles outlined in the civil contract of marriage. In addition marriage has at least two more ritual elements. The first has to do with love, something more emphasized in the modern world than in the ancient Hellenistic world. Love begins as children feel themselves loved by parents. With the onset of adolescent hormones, love takes on an intense sexual dimension and marriage ritual includes being sexual partners as well as friends. Love also extends to the care of others the way the ritual says parents should care for children, with care directed in mutuality between the couple, and perhaps to their extended families, and also to the next generation. The next generation might be blood children or adopted ones, or surrogates in a host of other social rituals such as education by which older people care for dependent younger ones. The ritual roles of marriage are intrinsically involved in larger social rituals of care and dependency.

The second ritual element in marriage is that it is a fundamental defining element for personal identity: to be a person as one of a couple is different from being a single person, and this difference can be extremely important, perhaps the most important defining element of identity for many people. The religious importance of personal identity is that it is what we present to God. It is who we are in ultimate perspective.

Remember that I am speaking about the ritual roles, not about their actual individuated performance. In an actual family one or both of one’s biological parents might be missing during the formative years, and whoever functions in the parental roles might be unloving. Love between the partners might be deficient in emotional quality or sexual fulfillment, and people’s better friends might be outside the marriage; similarly a couple might be terrible actual parents for their children. One might individuate one’s personal identity as a married person as a horrible marriage partner—abusive, codependent, emotionally absent, or adulterous. How people individuate the complex of roles defining the
ritual character of marriage might be very different from what the rituals themselves call for in terms of ideal performance. Yet I believe that what I have described so briefly is in fact the cultural definition of marriage in contemporary Western society—a definition based on a ritual dance of roles for social functions, love, and personal identity but understood always to be actualized in ways that individuate the roles in better and worse ways. When people talk about the real meaning of marriage, they mean something like this.

The problem for our rancorous debate about homosexuality is that the way we commonly identify such ritual complexes as marriages is with quick images, paradigm cases or outstanding models. These images are nearly always too one-sided, too selective, to be faithful to the complex social reality. When we think of “captains of industry,” the images that come to mind are usually of men, sexists as we are, not of women despite their prominence now in business. With regard to marriage the image, reinforced in literature, art, and tradition for centuries, is of a man and woman married lovingly to each other, each with parents, grandparents, and an extended family and together having children who in turn will mature and marry. This is the dominant image of marriage in our society. Even when we call to mind the vast complexity of marriage, and the distinction between its ritual roles to be performed and the actual performance of them, our thinking of marriage is focused and filtered through the dominant quick image.

Surely those people who claim to be social conservatives are right that few institutions in our society are as important as marriage, for purposes of domestic social function, the satisfactions of love, and ultimate personal identity. But social conservatives also claim that the heterosexual image of marriage is the only and definitive image of it. They believe that marriage itself, that wonderful ritual complex for human civilization and individual satisfaction, needs to conform to that image. In point of fact, however, same-sex couples can play all the roles that heterosexual people can in marriage. They can fulfill the contractual economic and domestic roles, the ritual connections to their own parents and extended family in learning love and care, the rituals of sexual love and fulfillment, the joining of careers and friendship, growing old together, and caring for the next generation, perhaps even in raising children of their own. No reason exists to believe that gay and lesbian people will individuate these roles more or less well than straight couples. There are winning and losing examples of both. I believe that anyone who can bracket out the short-cut images of marriage and think about its complex of ritual roles would agree that people of same-sex desire and commitment can enter faithfully into those ritual roles just the same as people with other-sex desire.

Of course most people are not going to think of marriage always with the analytical tools of sociology and ritual theory. We usually engage complex social realities by means of our images. Given the facts that about 95% of the population here and around the world is heterosexual, and that heterosexual marriage is far more efficient that homosexual marriage in matters of procreation, the dominance of heterosexual images of marriage is perfectly understandable. So is the passion with which those images are defended: what is under attack, as understood by people whose sole images of marriage are heterosexual, is not the mere image but the complex institution of marriage itself. Gay and lesbian people make up only about 5% of the population, and by no means all of those seek fulfillment in marriage. Very few models or images of same-sex marriages are well-known beyond the gay and lesbian communities. The resistance to same-sex marriage, resistance fueled by very great passion, is a noble defense of the very important social institution of marriage.

But it is misguided, I believe, by its association of the ritual complex of marriage with exclusively heterosexual images. Homosexual images can also be faithful to the complex reality. In time, perhaps not too much time, gay and lesbian couples will be more conspicuous in the community and will be depicted in the media so as to take on iconic functions. For gay and lesbian people to be denied either the legal right to marriage or the social respect of being able to enter into real marriages in the richest sense is unjust. The injustice is based on a confusion of the heterosexual image of marriage with the actual ritual complex of marriage roles that can be played equally well by same-sex couples. Same-sex marriages do indeed threaten the exclusivity of the image of marriage as between a man and a woman. But they do not threaten the reality of heterosexual marriage: the only complement heterosexual ways of individuating the roles of marriage with alternative same-sex ways that are satisfying for people with same-sex desire.

A final point is in order to reflect on the Christian significance of marriage. The Christian gospel is that as God loves us as creatures in our own right, so we should love one another and love God. Jesus taught the ideal of friendship in loving communities as the best context for cultivating love of God and of the others in creation. No evidence exists that he thought of marriage as a particularly good form of loving community, and given the social patterns of dominance and the economic definition of women prevalent in his day, this is understandable. Our own society has developed to the point, however, where marriage, set in the ritual context of family, economy, and cultural life, is a highly prized form of loving community. To be sure it is not for everyone. But for those who seek to find their personal identity as married people it is perhaps the richest kind of community of love in our culture. Therefore, to deprive gay and lesbian people of the opportunity to enter into marriage and have that blessed by the Church is an arbitrary betrayal of the Church’s mission to foster communities of love.

Let us therefore bless those people who fight for the integrity of marriage in all its complexity, praising God for the passion required to sustain it in a consumer society that would sell it for a profitable mess of pottage. Let us bless those people who recognize that the image of heterosexual marriage depicts only one way of individuating the complex ritual character of marriage, a way fulfilling for those with other-sex desire but devastating for those of same-sex desire. Let us bless those people who provide images of marriage individuated in the multiple ways open to gay and lesbian people, and bless those who learn from these new images. Let us bless those who move our social consensus forward with patient but firm conviction to do justice to the gay and lesbian members of our community who are marginalized regarding marriage because our social images are too limited. Let us bless the God who forgives us our mistakes when we remain obdurate in the face of this injustice or when we push so fast as to threaten the social stability within which the precious institution of marriage is meaningful. Let us praise the God who creates from the depths of complexity in the institution of marriage, and yet who makes all things new to bring all his children to life. Like Jesus at the wedding at Cana, we revel in joy for life and love. Praise God! Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Nature, Culture, Right, and Holiness

Sunday, November 2nd, 2003
Isaiah 25:6-9

Revelation 21:1-6a

John 11:32-44

For the last two weeks I have been preaching on how the Church should handle passionate and divisive conflicts among Christians about moral issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and the war in Iraq. Other religious communities also struggle with such conflicts. Last week I talked about the appeal to scripture in the conflict over homosexuality and argued that the very few mentions of homosexual acts in the Bible reflect cultural assumptions about dominance and subservience between men and women that themselves are wrong and that should be corrected by the Christian gospel. Unfortunately, because of a technical difficulty with our phone line, last week’s service was not broadcast; copies of that sermon can be obtained from the Marsh Chapel office or from our website. This morning I want to consider other arguments about homosexuality that do not have to do particularly with Biblical references.

Homosexuality is usually claimed to be unnatural by those who oppose it, and this claim is often a very deeply held emotional conviction, a gut feeling. Most hold this conviction because they have been taught it. When we ask whether it is justified, however, the first question has to be what is meant by “unnatural?” Perhaps one or more of several things, and the Church needs to sort them out. The biblical discussion last week considered the case that social custom dictates that all sexual relations should be of dominant over submissive partners and that men should be dominant and women submissive. In this case male homosexuality is “unnatural” because one partner needs to assume a submissive role, and female homosexuality would require one to assume a dominant role. If, to the contrary, the social custom emphasizes equality and reciprocity instead of a hierarchy of dominance, homosexual relations would not be unnatural in this sense. In many parts of the Western world, we have in fact substituted suppositions of equality and reciprocity for the ancient world’s hierarchical assumptions, and often have written them into law.

But same-sex desire might be unnatural in a deeper biological sense. Many in the ancient world believed that each thing has its own purpose or final cause, as Aristotle put it (though not everyone expressed the view as carefully as Aristotle). The sole purpose of sex, according to many of the ancients and some of our contemporaries, is procreation. They say that any use of sex for purposes other than procreation is unnatural because contrary to its purpose. Following this line, many Christians have condemned contraception and solitary sex, as well as gay and lesbian sex. Aristotle and the other philosophers who believed procreation is the purpose of sex saw it in the larger picture of the continuity of the species.

Contemporary biologists agree, of course, that sexual behavior is necessary for the continuity of the species, but with a significant shift from ancient thinking. We now understand sex and continuity in terms of populations, not individuals. A given group or population needs sufficient new births to fill its ecological and social niche. When the niche expands or a disaster decimates the population, more children are needed, and in hard times the birth rate needs to go down. Within a population, however, not everyone, or every couple, needs to have children, so long as the group as a whole produces enough children for its niche. So whereas the ancient world put a terrible onus on barren women, we do not, so long as the population has enough fertile women for an appropriate birth rate. Moreover, not every sexual act of a couple that wants children and can have them needs to be potentially fertile, only enough so as to have their children. Hence contraception might well be used to time the birth of children by a couple who wants to have many. It is not biologically unnatural for some people never to marry or have procreative sex. By the same token it is not unnatural in the modern biological sense for some people to be homosexual and to have sex that is never procreative so long as others in the population reproduce so as to fill the niche. Non-reproductive sexual impulses, including same-sex ones, have a biologically natural place in a larger reproductive population. Christians who believe homosexuality is contrary to biological nature need to come to terms with the modern definition of nature in population biology.

If not biologically unnatural, homosexuality might be culturally unnatural, as so many people argue, perhaps not distinguishing this from biological nature. Societies organize themselves into families, and families are intergenerational. The natural cultural expectation is that one’s children will have children. Some of the deepest opponents of homosexuality I know argue from bitterness about the fact their children will not give them grandchildren. To fit into organized society by living out an intergenerational family seems natural. That’s how ordinary life defines itself for most people. The pull of intergenerational social roles is so great that many gay and lesbian couples want to serve as parents and do so by adoption, artificial insemination, or temporary heterosexual liaisons, perhaps even marriages. Gay and lesbian couples sometimes become parents in part to satisfy their own parents’ longing for grandchildren.

That intergenerational family life is a culturally natural way to live does not mean, however, that it is the only culturally natural way to live. I know of no society in which everyone gets married to have children. When Jesus defined marriage as a man leaving his family to become one flesh with his wife there was no mention of children. Most societies have celibate social roles, and also roles for sexual life without or apart from marriage. Many heterosexual couples marry who do not have children, for one reason or another, and there are natural places in our society for couples like that. Why are there not natural places in our society for gay and lesbian people to live together as couples or in other social arrangements? There is no reason, so long as those social places do not inhibit the general welfare and richness of society. Why should we not enrich social diversity with social roles that fulfill the happiness of gay and lesbian people?

The moral weight of some social roles such as marriage, is more complex than I have indicated so far here, and next week I shall talk about the normative ritual character of social roles in connection with marriage.

Some people object to homosexual life, or life-styles, on moral grounds. They complain about pornography, violent abuse, pedophilia, shallow promiscuity, or sex acts that seem gross to them. Surely many issues of sexual behavior have important moral dimensions, but they apply equally to heterosexual and homosexual behavior. By far the most pornography, abuse, pedophilia, and promiscuity is heterosexual. Like heterosexual behavior, homosexual behavior can be immoral, degraded, and in deep need of amendment and redemption, not because of its sexual orientation but because of how that orientation is lived out. As to sex acts that seem gross to some people, they do not seem gross to those who find fulfillment in them.

In sum, whereas I argued last week that the Bible does not warrant believing homosexuality to be intrinsically sinful or immoral, I’ve argued now that is it not sinful or immoral because it is biologically unnatural or because societies ought to regard it as culturally unnatural. Gay and lesbian people might be thieves and murderers, disrespectful to parents and abusive of partners, lazy, gluttonous, drunkards, prideful, deceitful, and ready to use sex for demeaning and selfish purposes, just like straight people. From thes
e vices they and everyone else need redemption. But gay and lesbian people should feel no guilt at all for their same-sex desire as such, I believe. They are no less creatures of God in their sexuality than those with other-sex desire, and both together can contribute to the flourishing of the human community.

The Christian Church, like most other religions, has inculcated guilt and self-hate into gay and lesbian people and that has been a grievous mistake. As the Church should apologize for its complicity to those who have been enslaved because the Bible endorses slavery, and to women because the Bible endorses their humiliating subordination to men, so it should apologize to gay and lesbian people whom it has demeaned on mistaken biblical and philosophic grounds. Thank God, through such contrition the Church still can carry on God’s work of redemption.

Now I’m sorry that the clarity of this conclusion cannot stand by itself. Giving recognition, respect, freedom, power, and support to gay and lesbian people is not the only value to which we must attend, however important and overdue it is. Many competing values also exist, for harmony in families, the Church, and society, that are threatened by a challenge to the cultural assumption that homosexuality is sinful. The values having to do with social harmony are extremely complicated and I shall address some of them next week in talking about marriage. So long as many people believe that homosexuality is sinful, and do so out of deep convictions lodged in the assumptions through which they see the world, any challenge to that stigmatization of gays and lesbians threatens family, Church, and social order. For all their insistence that their lives are lived now and that they cannot wait generations for cultural change, many gay and lesbian people themselves are deeply pained by the hurt their sexual identity causes their families, and to a lesser extent perhaps their church and community. To know that your parents are disgraced, embarrassed and shamed by your socially stigmatized sexual identity causes double disgrace, embarrassment and shame, as well as anger, pity, and potential alienation. Because they love their families, churches, and communities, or would like to, most gay and lesbian people, like straight people who agree with their cause, know the social problem is to keep the faith with what is right while tolerating the compromises of a slow rate of cultural change toward holiness.

How slow? When I was a child growing up in St. Louis, my father tried to explain the racial prejudice that produced segregated water fountains and toilets in public places. When he was growing up, he said, everyone just knew that left-handedness was the sign of a deformed character, and in his grade school the left-handed children had their left arm tied down so that they had to use the right hand for writing. In the modern 1940s and 50s of my grammar school education, we knew that to be a false, silly, and harmful prejudice. Many of my classmates and their parents, however, had an equally false, silly, and harmful prejudice about the inferiority of African Americans, or rather about the superiority of white people that was so easily contaminated by intimate contact, as my father put it. He told me that within my lifetime, the racial prejudice that made the sharing of drinking fountains and toilets seem unspeakably gross to my white friends would fall away, and he was right. Were he alive today my father would say that within the lifetime of our college students the prejudice against gay and lesbian people will fall away, not completely, of course, any more than racism is completely gone, but to a very large degree. We see that happening as more people come to know “out” gays and lesbians, especially within their own family and intimate communities. As Christians concerned with the moral right for gays and lesbians on the one hand and for holiness for the whole people of God on the other, we pray that the changes in false cultural assumptions and unjust social arrangements come soon.

But we also pray that the rights and pains of those who are still convinced that homosexuality is sinful, with their personal and communal identity depending on that conviction, genuinely be respected and loved. Only in this way can the Church respect the depth of this moral conflict.

While we are waiting for this New Jerusalem to come down out of heaven, however long the wait, we should acknowledge that gay and lesbian people have been forced to live in the Church, and elsewhere, as if under a shroud. They have had either to leave the table or to deny that they are fully alive as sexual beings. Now is the time to proclaim to them the redeeming word of God. If you will pardon the pun, which I fully intend, John’s Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” Isaiah said, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” Behold, the feast of the Lord. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville