The Elephant in the Room

Talk about the white elephant in the room

Below is the main text of the sermon I preached on Sunday. The subject matter was one of great sensitivity as well as being one of a very personal nature. There was definitely a sharp intake of breath when I mentioned what I would be preaching about.

This sermon is preached in the context of a series based on Adam Hamilton’s book, “Making Sense of the Bible.” Some of the content has been taken from the book, of course, and the remainder has been built upon that foundation in my own preparations and thoughts. The text we read in the service was Luke 14:25-15:7, with the primary conclusion of the sermon being drawn from the parable of the lost sheep.

Below is the text as it was typed up for me to preach from. There were moments when I came off script, so what you read here is not the sermon in its final form. The recap on the series, mentioned at the very beginning of the sermon, was a recap of the main areas touched upon in the series so far, namely an overview of the Old and New Testaments, a sermon on the meaning of inspiration (as it relates to Scripture), a sermon on science and the Bible, and a sermon on making sense of the violence in the Old Testament.

Feedback was and has been positive from the congregation.

I post it here as a record of the preach.

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Recap on Series so far…

This week we are going to talk about the elephant in the room

The Elephant in the Room is a term that we use to describe something that is glaringly obvious in its need to be discussed, but is never actually discussed.

I have used that phrase as the title of my sermon today because I think that we have something that we need to talk about in church, that never really gets talked about – well not in the local church anyway. It gets talked about air higher levels in the church, by the men and women who write doctrines and policies, and come up with the discipline that we live under. But on a local level – we are not often given to preaching about the elephant in the room; we are not often open for discussion on the elephant in the room.

Today I want to talk to you about one of the most personal matters that human beings can talk about – and that is human sexuality.

Before I go any further, I need to say a few things in terms of ground rules. This topic is so personal to folks; I understand that it can can be profoundly sensitive.

Some of you have wrestled personally with the things I am going to touch on today. Whether that is in your own life, or in the life of a loved one or friend. For some folks in here I know that this is a deeply personal matter. My promise to you today is that I will be sensitive to that. It is a deeply personal matter in my own life too. My prayer is that all my words will be drenched in the grace and love that only Christ can give.

My job today is not to pontificate on what i think is right and wrong.
My job is not to lament the way things are in the world and dream of returning to the way they once were
My job today is to teach in a way that might help you make more sense of what the Bible says about human sexuality.
My job, as always is to point to Jesus.

Might there be somethings I say that you might find yourself in disagreement with? Perhaps. My job is not just to say the things that all 150 or so of you want to hear. But if that does end up being the case, let me remind you from the get go, that Christians, since the earliest days, have been able to disagree with one another, and still break bread together, in fellowship, in the name of Christ, and in the name of the deeper things that unite us, namely, the unconditional love of God.

So, with that in mind let’s get going!

In the world that I grew up in human sexuality was never really talked about in church at all. In fact, although i am from Northern Ireland, the influence of British culture was indeed great. We tended just to not talk about these kinds of things at all, and just hope that by some kind of osmosis, the right things would be learned. But it was never talked about openly and most definitely not in church.

Honestly.

I cannot remember one time in my entire childhood, adolescence, or young adult hood when i have heard anything said in church with regard to human sexuality. I never heard a sermon preached on it. I never sat in a Sunday School Class that taught on it. And I don’t think it ever came up at Youth Group either.

And yet…pretty much most of the Christians I met growing up and most of the Christians I meet these days seem to have a very strong opinion on matters of human sexuality.

Some times i wonder if i just missed that class, or if i wasn’t in church that day…

But seriously, even though there never seemed to be any specific teaching on matters of human sexuality, there always seemed to be plenty of overtones about what is proper and acceptable for Christians in matters of human sexuality. In other words…every one had an opinion…everybody had an idea…but no one really liked to talk about it. They just kind of pointed to the Bible and said, “It’s all in there…somewhere…I’m not really sure where…but I know it is in there…so this is what you should think”

When I was a child the social construct of western society was very simple when it came to human sexuality. Men and women fell in love with one another, got married, had children and kept the cogs of the world turning by doing the best they could to raise those children well.

That was kind of it.

When I read books, that was the model of relationships the author wrote about.
When I watched TV or movies, that was the model of family life.

As far as I knew that was just how it worked. And it was how it always worked for me too.

But we’re not in Kansas anymore…right? We are not in that world any more.

In fact, it seems like we never were in that world. Not really. All the while that I was learning what was supposed to be normal and acceptable in matters of human sexuality, there were others for whom what was being taught as normal, was actually very foreign in terms of their feelings and their personal realities.

Because of what was being taught as normal, and what we were accepting as normal, those others felt abnormal, different, and even below standard. They felt that they had to keep their feelings and realities a secret, hidden away from those who were nearest and dearest to them.

As I’ve said, we are not in that world anymore. The last 30 years has seen a total sea change in the way our culture and western societies think about human sexuality. Those things that people once felt they had to keep secret, they no longer feel they do. Although, it should be said that this is not the case for everyone – there are still many, many people who feel abnormal, different and below standard, and who continue to keep their realities and feelings secret.

That said though, the world is different. The so called norms of human sexuality that i was taught as a boy, and perhaps you all were taught too, are no longer the norms of the society around us. And in the same way as the church has always had to ask questions of it’s traditional stance when culture and society changes, the church in these days is faced with some major questions about human sexuality.

So it is important that we are able to make sense of the Bible on these matters. Right?

I can’t go into all of the Scriptures that pertain to human sexuality today, but there are a couple that I want to speak into. As I do so, I want you to know that I am not, in any way, saying definitively that what I am communicating to you is 100% the only way to interpret these texts. Remember, my job is not to pontificate today…my job is to help you make sense of what we read in Scripture.

So let’s start in Leviticus. Because that’s where every one love to start!!

In Leviticus 20, the writer, thought by some to be Moses, is writing a book of law and statute for the people of Israel to live by. In Exodus, the Commandments had been given at Sinai, of course, but Leviticus takes the Commandments and breaks them down into more detailed codes for daily living. In Lev 20, we are reading about the holiness codes. There is a bunch of stuff in here about what is not right and not right in terms of human relationships. And buried in there are these words:

“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.”

That seems pretty cut and dried. Right?

But remember what we have been emphasizing on in this series. As we reviewed the Old and New Testaments, as we discussed inspiration, and as we have tackled some of the big questions coming out of the Bible, we have been mindful to remember the humanity of the Bible writers – that they were imperfect minds, doing their best to interpret a perfect God in an imperfect world. We have been mindful to remember that the inspiration of Scripture is not the same as the dictation of Scripture.

It is easy for us to read our English translations of the Bible, with our 21st century minds and contexts, and to interpret in a such a way that we think we know exactly what the original writers of the Bible were thinking and wanting to get across.

But often times, in the Bible, things are not always as they first appear, which means that we often have a little more work to do, and some questions to ask if we are to think a sentence or paragraph through fully.

So what was the writer of Leviticus trying to get at? Well, in the rest of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) there are only two recorded references to same sex activity. One is the very famous one in Genesis 19 where we read of happenings in a town called Sodom. If you don’t know the story, let me overview it for you.

Two angels visit Sodom and get taken into the house of a man called Lot. Later that night, the men of Sodom hear that Lot is housing strangers in his house and they come and surround the property, demanding that the visitors be brought out to them so they could have their way with them.

Lot, being the amazing host that he is, refuses to give in to the demands of the townsmen, and instead decides that he will offer his two virgin daughters to the men, because these men have come under the protection of his roof.

I know. Right?

To your ears and mine, hearing about a father who is willing to protect two strangers at the expense of his two daughters is just not cool.

So, think with me for a minute. What is this story really about in Genesis 19? The answer is that this story is about power and force, and sexual violence, more than it is about same sex orientation.

When we talk about same sex relationships today, i assume that we are not talking about power and force and sexual violence. no. When we talk about same sex relationships today, by and large we are talking about stable, committed and loving relationships.

For us Sodom is a place that is forever related to same sex attraction because of this story, but the bottom line about Sodom is this: it was a fairly nasty and violent place to live and operate. It was known as a place of excesses and violence, and for their lack of care for the poor among them. The people of Sodom were condemned for much more than for what we have let their town name come to define in our own day.

The story of Sodom is the only record of homosexual activity recorded in the Torah before Leviticus. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that the writer of Leviticus was referring to the sin of homosexual rape as an abomination, and that he was not referring to committed, stable, and loving relationships between two members of the same sex as being sinful?

The other reference to same sex matters in the Torah is in Deuteronomy chapter 23. It is a brief and passing mention and it is in reference to Temple Prostitution. Yes.. You heard it right. Temple Prostitution. In these times it would not have been uncommon for religious temples to have had prostitutes on the premises. Engaging with such men or women would likely have been part of a fertility ritual of some kind, but ultimately much remains unknown about this.

But whatever it was – it is not a reference to stable, loving and committed relationships between two people. The comment here in Deuteronomy is a holiness code referring to momentary activity in the Temple.

Also worth noting is what the meaning of the word translated as abomination is. In the Levitical Law, things were usually very simply divided in life. Things of all natures were either clean or unclean; normal or abnormal. Clean/normal was good. Unclean/abnormal was not good. Another way of describing something as unclean or abnormal was to describe it as an abomination. The same word is used to describe the unclean/abnormal practices of eating shell fish or pork

So again, I want to ask, with all this in mind, is it possible that the writer of the Levitical Law Codes was using the word abomination to describe men lying with other men as simply not normal?

Friend, don’t get me wrong today. I am not trying to explain away these texts. I am not trying to lose you in the middle of a lot of information.

What I am saying is this: Perhaps we are often too quick to judge what the writers of the text really and truly meant when they wrote these words down a long time ago in a galaxy far far away

Essentially, the Old testament is not talking about stable, loving and committed relationships when it is talking about same sex attraction. The definitions of what is abnormal in the times that Leviticus is written, are some completely different from the definitions of abnormal in the 21st century western world.

So what about the New Testament?

Again, I cannot go into every single text, but I do want to take a look at Romans 1 where Paul is describing the guilt of humanity before God. In this section he makes reference to humanity’s rejection of God in favor of pursuing their lusts for one another, and exchanging up natural relations with one another for unnatural relations. Again, looking at the texts, Paul seems to be picking up on the themes of the Old testament in that he is referring to the idea of ritual sex or idolatry and also to the ideas of abnormal/normal/unclean/clean acts. He is likely also referring to the ancient Roman practice of pederasty. Pederasty is when an older man takes on a younger boy as a student and lover.

Now, I am sure that we can all agree that rape, sexual violence, ritual prostitution and pederasty are all acts that are worthy of our all round condemnation, right?

But it also has to be pointed out that these are each different from stable, committed, and loving relationships too. Right?

Again…let me stress that I am not here today to pontificate on what is right or what is wrong. It would be easy for me to preach a sermon that was all in on one side of this debate or the other. But I am not sure that that is what Jesus would do himself, and I am not sure that it is what Jesus would want me to do today. To preach such a sermon would be to alienate and exclude, and I am not convinced that alienation and exclusion of humans is the business of Jesus’s ministry.

So what would Jesus say about human sexuality?

The truth is, we don’t know. You see, Jesus never said anything about it. He talked about marriage, but only in the context of a teaching he was giving to his listeners about divorce.

I do know this about Jesus though.

Jesus is the very image of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus we see the heart and character of God in human skin.

Like I said a couple of weeks ago, when we look at the Old testament, the temptation can be to see a violent and violence justifying God, but when we look at Jesus we do not see such a God. We see the Prince of Peace. We see the one who says love your enemies and pray for them; who says Blessed are the peace makers. When we look at Jesus we see the God who absorbs the violence of the world rather than orchestrates it.

Also, when we look at Jesus we see one who was willing to fly in the face of ancient teachings about the place and status of women in the world as they knew it. We see one who was willing to break with the ancient traditions and codes in order to meet the woman at the well. We see the one who was willing to kneel down and protect a woman who had been caught in adultery.

When we look at Jesus, we see an image of God as the friend of sinners.

And when we look at Jesus we see an image of God and realize that before this God we are all sinners.

Every single one of us has something about us which should essentially maintain the distance between God and ourselves.

If you came to church thinking that I might define sin, and specifically sexual sin, for you today, then I am sorry. I am not here to do that.

Today I am here to remind you all that each of us is broken; each of us is sinful; and each of us stands in dire need of God’s unconditional, unwavering and persistent love.

Today I am here to point you to God the son, Jesus; the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and who is willing to go all the way in order to find every single one of us; to find you.

We are each of us broken. Each of us sinful. Each of us ashamed of one thing or another in our lives.

And we are also, each of us, invited by Jesus to walk with him and to walk in the way of the Kingdom.

We are each of us welcome into the family of God, as sinful and broken and ashamed as we might be.

And it is in this family, with God’s love abundantly available among us, that we will find out what it means to humble ourselves, be transformed in Christ and to become the beloved community.

I read an article this week that said this about the church: Church is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed.

If you are here today and you think that homosexuals are more broken than you are, then I am sorry, because I just don’t think that’s true.

If you are here today and you are homosexual and you think that you are not at all broken, then i am sorry, because I just don’t think it is true.

We are all broken. We are all lost. We all stand in need of God’s rescue and restoration in life; of god’s transforming grace in our lives.

I read an article this week that said this about the church: Church is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed.

So today, broken people, will you the hear the call of your equally broken pastor as I tell you that all broken people who are asking to be fixed by God are welcome here. And will you join me in assuming that all broken people, no matter how they are specifically broken, will find partners for the journey join this place.

How do we make sense of the Scripture on this matter?

We ask the questions that need to be asked of the text.
We look to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.
We look to Jesus who says that all are broken and yet all are welcome to be fixed by grace and love.

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