© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 17, 2008

The Reverend John Buehrens, who was once president of our denomination, tells of a university professor who attended his congregation in Tennessee. She was an older woman, who remembered the Scopes "monkey trial" about evolution. As Buehrens puts it, "... one winter day she called me. Would I be willing to do a private graveside service? The deceased was a woman she described as her 'good friend,' her next-door neighbor for almost forty years. They had never dared to live under the same roof together. Yet as I stood on that lonely cemetery hillside, and read the poems she had selected, and heard her read from a letter, and said a final, tearful prayer, it became clear to me that they had been married, totally, though no one had been allowed to know it. And I stood there saying inwardly 'This is not right. This must be changed, first in the church, and then in the world.'"

Rev. Buehrens may already have been sympathetic to gay rights, but he felt the importance of same-gender marriage after this face-to-face encounter with a real person in pain. Putting a human face on a social issue makes that issue much more real to us.

At one time few of us could put a human face on any love relationships that were not standard-brand heterosexual. Till recently many Americans were unaware of knowing anyone gay, when actually they knew many who were "in the closet." As a result, homosexuality was an abstraction, a vague idea lacking human face and form. All that has changed, and today most of us are acquainted with people who are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

Putting a human face on the issue of sexual (and gender) orientation is especially important in relating with young people. In a recent study of Christian congregations, nearly half of the teenagers in those congregations who were gay, lesbian, or unsure of their orientation had not told their parents. What a desperately lonely, isolated way to live! No wonder in the same study, "Non-heterosexual teens ... were almost twice as likely as heterosexual teens to have seriously considered suicide."

Mission Peak includes about 40 children and youth. It is virtually certain that some of them will discover (or have discovered) that their sexual or gender orientation is "non-standard." And even those who wind up heterosexual may worry about whether they're gay. "Some sexuality education professionals report that as many as 25% of twelve-year-olds are unsure of their sexual orientation...." They need to hear the sentiments expressed in that song "Everything Possible" by Fred Small we heard earlier: "... you can be anybody you want to be, you can love whomever you will. You can travel any country where your heart leads and know that I will love you still."

Recently Jo Ann and I were able to connect a human face with a name we had read about in the papers. While channel surfing we ran across a religious leader talking about homosexuality on TV. I was immediately struck with his intelligence and insight. He turned out to be Gene Robinson, who became bishop of an Episcopal diocese in New England a few years ago, even though he is openly gay. After being elected bishop, he received death threats and wore a bulletproof vest to his service of consecration.

Robinson says, "And although I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, that doesn't mean they are literally the "words" of God, virtually dictated by God through human media." [from In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God] Although it may seem as if the Bible condemns homosexuality, it's very hard to interpret particular verses. Some passages that have been quoted as condemning all same-gender intimate relationships may only be condemning same-gender sexuality if it involves coercion, violence, prostitution, child abuse, or infidelity. But straight relationships involving these things would also be condemned.

In Romans the Apostle Paul seems to associate same-sex relationships with being "filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless." (Romans 1:27-28 RSV) That does not sound like the gay and lesbian people I know. When we read something in a sacred book that flagrantly contradicts our own direct experience, we should suspect that it reflects human prejudice, not higher wisdom. Or as some have suggested, Paul may have been talking about particular people and situations, not gayness in general.

And what's more important, Paul had never even heard about the concept of homosexuality. Bishop Robinson points out that, "the philosophical and psychological construct of sexual orientation is a modern phenomenon. It was only at the very end of the nineteenth century that the notion was first posed that there might be a certain minority of people who are naturally oriented - affectionally and sexually - toward members of the same gender. In biblical times, and until the last hundred or so years, it's been assumed that everyone is heterosexual, which meant that anyone acting in a homosexual manner was acting 'against their nature.' In other words, homosexuals were 'heterosexuals behaving badly.' ... You can't take a twentieth-century [concept], insert it back into an ancient text, and proclaim that it means something totally unknown to the authors of that text." (Some civilizations, such as the ancient Greeks, may have realized that same-sex orientation is natural to certain individuals. But heterosexuals have generally shaped people's concepts about sexuality and they have typically assumed that it is natural for everyone to be straight.)

Fortunately, many religious leaders are re-examining what the scriptures say about sexuality. A Moravian minister wrote, "for the first time it hit me that there have always been homosexual people, so that surely must be some part of God's overall plan." A pastor from Disciples of Christ said, "When I think of all the pain that ... gay people I've known have gone through because of rejection by friends, family, and the church, I just have to think that they didn't 'choose' to have this orientation. It's just a part of who they are, and that has to mean that it's part of God's plan." And Rabbi Gordon Tucker has suggested that "the sacred text .. can't possibly mean to bar people from being who they are. Nowhere in Jewish law is such a repressive regime advocated ... and so we must be reading the verse incorrectly here. We may not know what the verse means, ... but we know it can't mean this."

A sacred book should help us see each other as we are. But the Bible has been used to blind us to each other, to bar us from connecting heart-to-heart, so that we see each other only as members of general categories. So here is a test for whether a spiritual teaching is inspired by higher wisdom or human prejudice. Higher wisdom should unite us instead of dividing us, and it strengthens the power of love, not the power of hate. If you are unsure whether some action is moral, ask whether it increases love and healing, and reduces alienation. If the intimacy of gay and lesbian persons promotes genuine love and affection, how can it be wrong?

As I have mentioned in previous sermons, I've had the good fortune to be quite well-acquainted with some gay couples. I worked as a family therapist for many years, and I have noticed that the interactions between gay partners are mostly identical to the ways heterosexual partners interact. There are some differences, but nothing that diminishes the quality of intimacy.

Many of us, both gay and straight, could tell stories about how knowing gay and lesbian people has corrected our prejudices and stereotypes. One rather poignant story concerns a regional meeting of church leaders in the Mennonite denomination. The topic of homosexuality came up, and one Mennonite man sternly rejected the idea that the church should respect GLBT individuals. After he had gone on for quite some time, a prominent Mennonite leader who was revered in that denomination like Moses, asked to speak. "I've always been pretty conservative on this issue," he said. "I recognize that the Bible doesn't say a great deal about homosexuality, but what is there has always seemed to me to be prohibitive. But now I find myself with a grandson, who never wanted to be gay, who has concluded that it is part of who he is, part of how God made him.

"I held that little boy in my arms thirty minutes after his birth, and he has spent at least a week in my home every year of his life. If this is what being gay is about, then it is not what I thought. I'm starting to take a new look at what the Bible says about sexuality, and I'm paying more attention to the Genesis story of [the goodness of] creation.... I haven't sorted it all out theologically, but I have to say this: A grandson trumps theology. You are looking at a new gay rights activist." [from Widening the Welcome of Your Church, by Fred Bernhard and Steve Clapp]

Dorothy Parker said, "You can't teach an old dogma new tricks." Maybe she was wrong. Minds are changing, hearts are opening, even in traditional denominations.

This is not just an issue of gay or straight. It ties in with the UU Principle of "respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person." Bishop Gene Robinson made some insightful comments which place this issue in the broader context of human prejudice:

"Everyone knows what an 'ism' is: a set of prejudices and values and judgments backed up with the power to enforce those prejudices in society. Racism isn't just fear and loathing of non-white people; it's the systemic network of laws, customs, and beliefs that perpetuate prejudicial treatment of people of color. I benefit every day from being white in this culture. I don't have to hate anyone ... to benefit from a racist society. I just have to sit back and reap the rewards of a system set up to benefit me. I can even be tolerant, open-minded, and multi-culturally sensitive. But as long as I'm not working to dismantle the system, I am racist....

"More and more people are feeling kindly toward gay and lesbian people, but that will never be enough. More important is the dismantling of the system that rewards heterosexuals at the expense of homosexuals.... Over one thousand rights are automatically granted to a couple who marries. Yet the gay couple who has been faithfully together for thirty years is denied those very same rights."

Robinson concludes, "In the end, I know everything will turn out right. Christians are hopeful by nature - not because we have any special confidence in the desire of human beings to do the right thing, but because of our confidence in God to keep prodding, inspiring, and calling us ... [to] the kind of Kingdom in which all are respected, all are valued, all are included. ... and in the end, God will not be foiled."

Some of us here share Robinson's confidence in the way God works in the world, while others would look more to human sources of goodness, creativity, and love. But surely something keeps prodding us to work for a world in which every one of our children is treasured for exactly who they are, where (to paraphrase the song we heard earlier by Fred Small) The only measure of their words and their deeds will be the love they leave behind when they're done.

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