Thursday, July 30, 2015

Listening Only to Your Heart

Martha . . . came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
Luke 10:40-42

The story of Mary and Martha is one of the most famous in the Gospels. It is also one of the shortest. Luke tells it in just five verses. It is a little story with a big lesson; a simple encounter with far reaching implications.

Martha welcomed Jesus into her home and set about preparing the meal. Although the picture shows Mary alone with Jesus, it is more likely that she was sitting with a group of his disciples. While Martha worked, Mary sat and listened to Jesus’ teaching. In frustration, Martha interrupted the group to ask Jesus to reprimand her sister. In his answer, Jesus makes at least four points:

1)      He suggests that a simple meal will fulfill the requirements of hospitality.
2)      He approves Mary’s choice of listening to his teaching, and thereby makes clear his belief that a woman could be a disciple.
3)      By contrasting Mary’s choice with Martha’s, he questions the traditional expectation that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
4)      And finally, he says something profound about the grace of doing nothing.

Any one of these points is worth a morning’s meditation, but as I contemplate this on another uncomfortably warm day, I want to look at the last one. I have to begin with confession, since I tend to be more Martha than Mary. I am more comfortable with doing than with being. And I can’t help pointing out that if Martha had been sitting with Mary there would have been a lot of hungry people at dinner time. It’s also worth noting that Jesus makes the very opposite point in the story that immediately precedes Mary and Martha. In Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus concludes by telling the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.” The story of Mary and Martha is the perfect counterpoint to the story of the Good Samaritan.

Doing nothing, in the sense that we see it in the story, is not the same as wasting time. We can waste time in all sorts of ways, many of which are closely tied to the false business that Jesus questions. The nothing that Mary is doing is not wasting time. It is making space and time to receive another person. Doing nothing is the empty cup into which Jesus’ teaching is poured.

At the end of the summer, we will ask each other, “What did you do on vacation?” It is a polite question, intended to show our interest in each other’s lives. But it also tells us something about ourselves. It is a “Martha” question, because most of us tend to be more Martha than Mary.

What would it mean, “to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching”? The answers will be as varied as our lives. Bible study is a good place to begin. But it’s only a beginning. We might find ourselves listening to flowers, friends, family, sunsets, spouses, books and music. Some of us are listening to the mountains this summer. Others are listening to the ocean. As Mary listened to Jesus, she was also listening to her heart, and hearing there the whispers of the person God was calling her to be.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Scopes Trial: Ninety Years Ago Today

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial

When I look at your heavens, 
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.

Psalm 8:3-5

On July 21, 1925, ninety years ago today, John Thomas Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution to a high school biology class in Dayton, Tennessee and fined $100 (about $1300 in 2015).

The trial was something of a circus, and it was a circus, at least in part, because the participants wanted it that way. It was not clear that Scopes, who was a substitute teacher, had actually violated the Butler Act, the state law which made it illegal to teach human evolution in a state funded school. But the trial was seen as a way to bring publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, and both sides were quite willing to participate in the spectacle.

The prosecution recruited three time Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, and the defense lined up Clarence Darrow, who was famous for defending Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and sparing them the death penalty.

Although Bryan was a devout Christian and Darrow was an agnostic, the trial was not about religion versus secularism as much as it was about two competing Christian theologies. It pitted the Fundamentalism enshrined in the Butler Act against Modernism. The Fundamentalists believed that every word in the Bible was literally true and that only by interpreting the Bible literally could Christians be faithful. The Modernists believed that in order to understand the meaning of the Bible, modern Christians needed to use all the gifts that God had given them, including science, reason, and historical criticism. The Fundamentalists believed that evolution was incompatible with Christianity. The Modernists believed that understanding how life evolved was not a threat to the meaning of life which they saw in God’s creative spirit.

The trial was not about theology versus science. It was about one brand of theology against another. Although Fundamentalism won in the courtroom, it suffered severely in the court of public opinion. In recent years it has become fashionable to ask candidates for President of the United States to renounce the theory of evolution in order to prove that they were “real” Christians and truly believed in the creative power of God. But in the many decades after the Scopes ruling, that question would not have been asked because most Christians outside of a small circle of Fundamentalists thought there was any inherent conflict between science and religion.

The verdict was overturned by the Tennessee State Supreme Court, which called the case bizarre and encouraged the Attorney General to avoid pursuing similar cases in the future. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Grafton Green made an interesting observation about the relationship of evolutionary science and religious belief:

“We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship. So far as we know, there is no religious establishment or organized body that has in its creed or confession of faith any article denying or affirming such a theory. So far as we know, the denial or affirmation of such a theory does not enter into any recognized mode of worship. Since this cause has been pending in this court, we have been favored, in addition to briefs of counsel and various amici curiae, with a multitude of resolutions, addresses, and communications from scientific bodies, religious factions, and individuals giving us the benefit of their views upon the theory of evolution.

“Examination of these contributions indicates that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are divided among themselves in their beliefs, and that there is no unanimity among the members of any religious establishment as to this subject. Belief or unbelief in the theory of evolution is no more a characteristic of any religious establishment or mode of worship than is belief or unbelief in the wisdom of the prohibition laws. It would appear that members of the same churches quite generally disagree as to these things.”

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Cost of Our Unfaithfulness

Rev. Benjamin Hutchison, former Pastor of Cassopolis United Methodist Church

 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
Matthew 23:23-24

In 1937, when he has deeply engaged in leading the Confessing Church in its opposition to Hitler, the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called “Nachfolge,” which means following. After the war, the book was published in English as, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer declared that, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

By contrast, an analysis of the current experience of Christians in the United States might be called, “The Cost of Unfaithfulness.” And our unfaithfulness is costing us dearly.

Over the several decades that the church has debated the inclusion or exclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, many have decried the lack of civil discourse. In the midst of heated debate there is always someone who takes the floor to remind everyone in pious tones that there is pain and hurt on both sides of this issue.

It is, of course, a false equivalency. The pain of being excluded is not the same as the pain of feeling that the power to exclude will be taken away. No matter how hard it might be for the traditionalists to feel like they are being demeaned for their beliefs, it is not the same as actually being demeaned for who you are.

The traditionalists are not being victimized. But the whole church is paying for the conflict.

In Jesus’ colorful language, we are straining out gnats and swallowing camels and there is a price to be paid for our unfaithfulness. The cost is borne most directly and painfully by those we have excluded, but it is also borne by the church as a whole.

Someone once said that all publicity is good publicity. It isn’t. In the current debate, the “Christians” are almost always identified as those opposing equality. Christianity is identified with discrimination and bigotry.

The latest example comes to us courtesy of my beloved United Methodist Church and the treatment of a congregation and pastor in Michigan.

This past Monday night, Rev. Benjamin Hutchison was forced to resign as the pastor of the Cassopolis United Methodist Church after he admitted to his District Superintendent that he had a same sex partner.

As far as we know, Hutchison was a good pastor. In the three years that he served the Cassopolis church, he dramatically increased the membership. A parishioner said that the membership had quadrupled. And they had become financially stable.

The local church was well aware of Hutchison’s sexual orientation. Bill Loux, a member of the congregation, told a local television reporter that initially he was surprised and upset to find out that his new young pastor was gay. “At first,” said Loux, “it was kind of shocking to us, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we got some gay dude in here.’ But we immediately learned to love this guy, he’s crazy good.”

Loux went on to say, “He's just done a wonderful thing here, and for the Methodist Church to treat him this way is totally unacceptable to our church and everybody in this community.” Loux said that Hutchison’s sexual orientation was not a problem for the congregation. “Even though he's gay, he's part of our family, my family, the church family,” said Loux.

According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the District Superintendent and the Bishop did the right thing. They followed the rules. 

Sometime, as Jesus explained to his critics, the rules are wrong. Sometime, love and the Gospel demand something more than following the rules. 

Maybe there is something more to it. Maybe the Bishop and the District Superintendent in Michigan had some compelling and confidential reason for doing what they did. But it doesn’t look that way. 

Looking at this latest case through the lens of public opinion, it looks bad because it is bad. Sometimes faithfulness to rules means unfaithfulness to the Gospel. The traditionalists insist that there must be consequences for not following the rules. 

There are also consequences for not following the Gospel.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Lies, Stories, and Brian Williams

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
II Timothy 2:15

I think it was Elie Wiesel who said that when an ancient rabbi was asked why God made human beings, he answered, “Because he loves stories.”

Of course, I could google that and find out whether or not Wiesel ever said that and I could probably find the original source. I might also discover, though I think it is unlikely, that I just made it up.

It certainly sounds like something an ancient rabbi would have said. And I have no doubt that God loves stories. That’s why we have the Bible. It really is “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

All of this is by way of saying that I came to the Brian Williams story with a sympathetic frame of mind. He is a good storyteller. And I love a good story. I love to hear a good story and I love to tell good stories. And anyone who can tell a story knows that a slavish devotion to the facts can ruin a good story. Sometimes the facts can even get in the way of the truth.

One of the ways in which preaching (and all public speaking) has changed dramatically in the last quarter century is determined by the ease with which facts can be checked. In the age of print, it might take days or even weeks to check on a story. In the digital age, those days have been reduced to seconds. A few years ago you could do your fact checking as soon as you got home to your computer and could get an internet connection. The lap top and the expansion of wireless connections reduced the time even further. Today, with a smart phone we can check things in real time.

Of course, all of that internet research has its downside. There is an almost unlimited supply of data at our fingertips, but lots of it is phony. We used to say that the camera doesn’t lie. Now we know that although the camera may not lie, the picture might. Almost anything can be photoshopped at home so that it’s hard to know what is real and what is not.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past six months, you know that Brian Williams has had a swift and sudden fall from grace when it was discovered that he had lied about an incident that took place during the early weeks of the Iraq war in 2003 when he was reporting from Iraq and imbedded, as many journalists were, in an army unit.

In a Nightly News broadcast on March 26, 2003, Williams reported the dramatic events of the day:

"We are one of four Chinook helicopters flying north this morning, third in line. As we head toward the drop point the Iraqi landscape looks quiet. We can see a convoy of American troop carriers and supply vehicles heading north....Down below some civilians, seemingly happy to see us.  But these soldiers have heard reports of Iraqis in civilian clothes firing on American troops. Indeed, just before we’re able to make our drop, radio traffic makes clear this routine mission is running into trouble. We quickly make our drop and then turn southwest. Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky."

Ten years later, when he retold the story to David Letterman, he made some major revisions that made it even more dramatic. "We were in some helicopters,” he said. “What we didn’t know was, we were north of the invasion. We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the Third Infantry could cross on them. Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47."

It began to unravel on January 30, 2015, when he told about how he had met one of the soldiers who had served in Iraq. "The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG, Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armored mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry." One of the soldiers who was there disputed Williams’ account. That led to an internal investigation at NBC News, which led to a six month suspension without pay and Williams’ eventual reassignment to MSNBC.

As it turns out, that was not the only time that he took liberties with the truth. He said that he was at the Brandenburg Gate the night the Berlin Wall came down, when he actually got there a day later. He said that he watched a man commit suicide in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he really only heard about it. There’s more, but it doesn’t really matter.

Journalism and preaching are very different forms of communication. But each depends on “rightly handling the word of truth.” And in both preaching and journalism, you can’t change the facts to make yourself look better without compromising the integrity of the message.

So Brian Williams lost a half a year’s salary. That’s a lot of money. Reportedly that would amount to around five million dollars. Putting that differently, in spite of being found to have repeatedly misrepresented the facts in his reporting, always making himself look better, he made five million dollars.

There are other lies and distortions on television that are much more damaging than the ones that Brian Williams told, but that’s really no excuse.

Pastors have lost their jobs for doing what Brian Williams did (with much smaller audiences). Putting a positive light on that, maybe it just means that the church values the truth more than the media does.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Just One Question for Christians Opposed to Marriage Equality

Tony Campolo. Sociologist, Pastor, Author

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:29-31

More than twenty years ago, I was part of a small gathering at Community Baptist Church in Manchester, Connecticut, listening to Tony Campolo talk about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He was and is a compelling speaker: bold, enthusiastic, insightful, inspiring, and honest. He spoke in conversational tones, but his energy filled the room.

When it was time for questions, someone asked him what he thought about homosexuality.

This was long before there was any serious thought about equal marriage. At that time, most Protestant churches were still grappling with the basic idea of gay and lesbian civil rights.

Campolo paused. He looked directly at the questioner. “Well,” he asked slowly, “What did Jesus say about it?”


And then, with increased energy, he answered his own question. “Jesus didn’t say anything about it.”

“So,” he said, “My question for you is, ‘Why is this so important to you?’”

I have thought about that exchange often over the years. I had already been committed to gay and lesbian civil rights for a long time. In terms of philosophical and theological ethics, it seemed obvious. But twenty something years ago, the biblical piece had not yet become clear to me and I found his response very helpful.

A few weeks ago, when Tony Campolo unsettled many evangelicals by “coming out” in support of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians within the church, I was not surprised. I doubt that it was a great change in his perspective. I think he was just finally admitting to the world (and possibly to himself) what he had believed for a long time.

Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansiing, Michigan published a blog post titled, “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags,” that has been widely shared on social media. Some of the questions might prompt reflection, others are obvious, and some are accusatory, but the overall thrust is to suggest that supporting equal marriage is unbiblical. Many others have answered those questions in a variety of ways, and some of the answering is probably necessary. If only to prove that those of us waving the rainbow flags have also read the Bible.

My first response was to think of all the questions I have for those who think that the advent of equal marriage is the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. I thought of writing something called “400 Questions for Christians Opposed to Equal Marriage.”

But in the end, all of my questions boiled down to the one Tony Campolo asked two decades ago. 


Why is this so important to you?

Why aren’t you more concerned, as Jesus was, about income inequality, about social and economic justice? Why aren’t you more concerned about war?

When the Hebrew prophets pronounced God’s judgment, the issue was justice, not sexuality. If you are looking for signs of the end, why aren’t you looking there?

How can you possibly be so invested in denying rights to people? And how can you believe that is what Jesus would want you to do?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Gay Marriage and the Bible: Even the Devil Can Quote Scripture

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Luke 4:9-13

In Luke’s version of the temptation story, the devil quotes scripture when he presents the last temptation. 

This is worth noting because the original story must have come from Jesus himself. There were no other witnesses. He was alone in the wilderness, fasting and praying. Shakespeare authored the famous quotation: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” But the idea originated with Jesus.

The importance of the detail is not diminished by the fact that the struggle was taking place within Jesus’ mind and soul. The devil or “tempter” was not some external spiritual being, but an inner experience of the spirit. It is useful to remember this story when we contemplate what the Bible says about homosexuality. It is widely accepted that “the Bible condemns homosexuality,” but the reality of the biblical witness is more complex and nuanced.

The assertion that the Bible condemns homosexuality is built on just 7 references. Three are in the Hebrew scriptures and four are in the New Testament. These are the passages typically used to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

The late Walter Muelder, who was Dean of the Boston University School of Theology for many years, and a pioneer in the discipline of Christian Social Ethics, was adamant that when we go to the Bible for ethical direction, we cannot pick and choose. Seven passages are not enough to construct an ethic. They are not irrelevant. But they cannot be determinative. On the other hand, if you believe in biblical inerrancy, and you believe that each verse is equally inspired and authoritative, then you cannot question the authority of even a single verse, let alone seven passages. I think it is a useful exercise, just to be clear on what those passages actually say and mean, rather than to assume that we know. 

The Story of Sodom and Gomorrah

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. Ezekiel 16:49 

The first, and certainly the best known passage, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. My guess is that when most people think about the sins of Sodom, they do not think about having “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” and an unwillingness to “aid the poor and needy.”

But there it is.

We go to the Bible, looking for self-righteous moralisms and end up with social justice. Again. When it comes to the question of how we should be living our lives, it’s always about social justice. Or as Jesus summarized it in the Great Commandment, it’s about loving God and neighbor. (Loving God means loving your neighbor. And loving your neighbor is loving God.) We should keep Ezekiel’s commentary in mind as we review the narrative in Genesis. 

The story begins with a happy episode. Three strangers come to visit Abraham and Sarah, who are living in a tent by the oaks of Mamre. The men are messengers from God, angels, who have come to reaffirm the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. They speak with Abraham outside of the tent. Inside the tent, Sarah laughs, because it seems preposterous that at her age she could have a child. And there is a wonderful interchange in which the men chastise her for laughing. She insists that she did not laugh and the episode ends with one of the men saying, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Then the men set out toward Sodom, and Abraham goes with them to show the way. God tells Abraham that the men are going to Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy the cities, because there has been such a great outcry over their sin. Abraham then begins to bargain with God. What about the righteous who live in those cities, will the LORD sweep them away with the guilty? Abraham drives a hard bargain, and God agrees that if they can find ten righteous, then the cities will be spared.

After the bargain is struck, “the LORD went his way,” and Abraham returned home, and “the two angels came to Sodom.”

At this point, things go downhill in a hurry. The strangers (angels) are met at the gate of the city by Lot, who insists that they spend the night with him. He makes them a feast, and they enjoy the meal together, but before they can lie down for the night, a crowd gathers outside. “The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.” The crowd demands that Lot send out the strangers, “so that we may know them.” In other words, so that we may have sexual relations with them.

Lot goes out to argue with the crowd and even offers to let them rape his two virgin daughters, rather than give up the men who have come “under the shelter of my roof.” But the crowd is undeterred and threatens to do even worse to Lot if he does not give up the strangers. At that point, the strangers reach out and pull Lot back into the house with them, and strike “with blindness” all those in the crowd, “so that they are unable to find the door.”

In the morning the strangers send Lot and his family away to safety, and fire rains down on the cities until they are destroyed.

It is a dark tale. There are rays of light, but they are not easy to find. No one would count this among their favorite Bible stories. It is not the Sermon on the Mount, or the Good Samaritan. It isn’t the Twenty-third Psalm, or the Ten Commandments. It isn’t Micah or Amos or Hosea or Ruth. It isn’t even on a par with Esther.

The story is not just Patriarchal; it is deeply misogynistic. It’s good that Lot offers hospitality to strangers, and it’s good that he tries to protect his guests. But in his attempts to dissuade the men of Sodom from attacking the strangers, Lot offers to let them rape his daughters. And the story implies that the gang rape and humiliation of women is not as bad as the gang rape and humiliation of men.

It is difficult to claim ethical guidance from a story which is fundamentally immoral. One of the challenges in reading and interpreting the Bible is separating the timeless truths from the stories that simply reflect the prejudices and limited perspectives of a primitive people. The story of Sodom clearly falls into the latter category. We need to recognize it as such, and let it go.

Alternatively, we can focus, as Ezekiel did, on the guilt of Sodom that (apparently) first led to God’s judgment: “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” That is a biblical truth which stands the test of time.

Two Verses from the Holiness Code 
in Leviticus

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. Leviticus 20:13

Little Good Harbor sits on the southeastern coast of Georgetown Island. It is a charming place with an equally charming name. It is a small harbor, but contrary to what one might expect from the name, it is not very good. It is too shallow and has too many rocks. Though it looks inviting, it is almost useless. So it is of “Little Good.”

The Priestly Code of Leviticus is in many ways the Little Good Harbor of biblical wisdom. It is not as shallow as Little Good Harbor, but there are lots of rocks. In the storms of life it does not provide safe haven. The idea of a guide for living that sets God’s people apart, is a good one, but the actual code is deeply flawed.

Leviticus has two almost identical verses of condemnation. The first passage, verse 22 of chapter 18, says simply, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second passage, printed above, adds the penalty of death, and notes that those who commit such acts are responsible for their fate; “their death is upon them.”

The condemnation is clear and unmistakable.

Here, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see reflections of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. To lie “with a male as with a woman” was to treat the male as if he were female. This was the ultimate humiliation. Judaism and Christianity have moved toward gender equality, but the subjugation of women remains deeply imbedded in Middle Eastern culture. The condemnation of male homosexuality is a reflection of the patriarchal devaluation of women.

“Abomination” is a strong word. And it is not used often. In the Priestly Code of Leviticus, it is an abomination to eat an eagle, an osprey, or a vulture. It is an abomination to eat a burnt offering after the second day. And it is an abomination to eat anything unclean. Eating such things may be unappetizing, but it hardly seems “an abomination.”

The death penalty is serious. In Leviticus, it is mandated for murder, for adultery, for blasphemy, for cursing one’s mother or father, and for “wizards and mediums.” In Exodus and Deuteronomy, the death penalty is invoked for breaking Sabbath, as well as for outsiders who come near the Tabernacle. Looking back across the millennia, that seems a little harsh.

We know from historical research that the death penalty was seldom used for these crimes. At this point, the Torah uses the language of death, not literally as a legal sentence, but metaphorically, to indicate the seriousness of the offense. Just as in our less enlightened moments we might say, “anyone who does that ought to be shot!”

When we read that it is an abomination and that it calls for the death penalty, we read it as a very strong condemnation. But that reading is at least somewhat tempered by the recognition that many of the other offenses that are described with that same harsh language do not seem as “abominable” to twenty-first century readers.

Leviticus is tough going. More than one well-intentioned and sincere Christian setting out to read the whole Bible from cover to cover has struggled through the long narratives of Genesis and Exodus, only to come to a grinding halt when confronted with the strange list of arcane laws that make up the Priestly Code of Leviticus. In order to understand it, we need to avoid getting lost in the details.

If we set out to construct a sexual ethic on the foundation of the two condemning verses in Leviticus, then we need to explain why we are picking and choosing those verses and not also including the admonitions about the ritual purification of women after menstruation and many other similar laws. And we need to explain our use of a code which is patriarchal and misogynistic. Its purpose is to set the people apart from the surrounding pagan culture, yet in its attitudes toward women it generally reflects that culture.

The premise of the Holiness Code is that God’s people should be holy as God is holy; that in our daily living we should remind ourselves of who we and whose we are. When the rabbis read these laws, they read them with that end in mind. The details are flawed, the product of a primitive world view and a pre-scientific understanding. But if we can focus beyond that, on the vision behind the details, then we can find light for our journey.

Paul told the church in Corinth that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. When it comes to the study of Torah, Rabbi Paul echoes the ancient rabbinic insight that God is found in the white spaces. Leviticus is about a people set apart and called to be different. The details may confound us, but the greater vision is of a life shaped by the calling of God.

Four New Testament References

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:26-27 

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. I Corinthians 6:9-10

This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching. I Timothy 1:9-10 

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7 

As a Christian, I find the New Testament passages more troubling. We claim the whole Bible as our sacred story, but we also want to believe that Jesus brought a cosmic change in our thinking. Rightly or wrongly, I think we expect more enlightenment when we read the New Testament.

The passages from Hebrew scripture are more easily dismissed. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly primitive. And no one takes Leviticus seriously.

Although Christians sometimes over-emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus’ teachings, he did bring a new perspective on many issues. He also deepened and expanded insights previously found in the Prophets. And he revealed great truths about human beings. But he did not change human nature.

Regardless of what we may believe about the inspiration of the biblical writers, we know that the actual words were written by human beings. The people who wrote the Bible (who put the letters and words on the page) were not perfect. And they were subject to the influences of the surrounding culture.

When Paul wrote his letters, he did not write them as sacred scripture. He was writing to specific people in specific places, offering advice and counsel intended for their situation. He did not know that two millennia later Christians would be studying those letters and reading them in worship as sacred texts. And the same is true for the unknown authors of the other New Testament epistles.

Of the four texts cited above, the last three can be dismissed rather easily. The last two, from the First letter to Timothy and from the Letter to Jude, were written fifty to one hundred years after Paul’s death, and do not carry the same authority as a letter from the Apostle. The Corinthians passage, like the passages from Timothy and Jude is written with ambiguous language which makes the meaning unclear. These texts are talking about some sort of inappropriate sexual behavior, but it is not clear what it is. (For a scholarly examination of Paul's language in these verses, click here.) What is certain, is that they are not talking about a loving, consensual, committed same sex relationship between two adults.

The Romans text is more difficult. We know with nearly one hundred percent certainty that it was written by Paul. That makes it hard to ignore if you believe as I do that Paul was the greatest Christian theologian, that all subsequent Christian theology is a footnote to Paul, and that his inspiration and brilliance were the driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the ancient world.

These two verses from Romans have probably done more to harm Christian attitudes toward homosexuality than anything else in the Bible. So what do we make of this?

First, Paul’s primary interest in this passage is not homosexuality, he is writing about what happens when we turn away from God. When we turn away from God, says Paul, we do “unnatural” things. The sexual relations which Paul describes are the result and not the cause or our turning away.

Second, his apparent reason for rejecting same sex relations is that they are “unnatural.” But our sense of what is “natural” is not fixed. In the nineteenth century, it was thought “unnatural” for blacks to be equal to whites. A hundred years ago it was “unnatural” for children with learning disabilities to be in public school. Fifty years ago a majority of Americans believed that marriage between blacks and whites was “unnatural.” Our sense of what is natural has changed. Is it unreasonable to believe that if Paul were alive now, he would see things differently?

Paul wrote about what he saw in the context of his own time and place. What may have been true in his time is not necessarily true in our time. One of the great biblical truths from Abraham and Sarah onward is that God always calls us into the future. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward for what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.”