Two weeks ago was Coming Out Sunday in the United Church of Christ, and I didn’t want to completely miss the opportunity for us to celebrate our having become an Open and Affirming Congregation in 2003, a process led here by Committee Chair Josephine McNeil. There are now 1863 ONA congregations in the UCC—we are Number 336, I think. And very close in timing to the Congregational Church in Needham where I gave their kick-off sermon for their Open and Affirming process in 2001.
In the United States we have gone from the barbarity committed upon Matthew Shepherd, beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming, on the night of October 6, 1998, to Marriage Equality in the United States in 2015—. You could call that a huge distance to cover in a short 17 years, maybe. But really, it had been too long, much too long for reason to have finally prevailed.
Well, after all, reason had to prevail over the Bible, so it was a tough slog for twenty centuries. But, I should rather say, reason had to prevail over biblicism, reason had to prevail over the fetishizing of isolated scraps of scripture to support socially and irrationally determined taboos. It helped a lot that President Obama publically modelled the natural process of “catching up” that comes with learning from experience and relationships about things deeper than prejudice.
Then this week there comes onto the stage two strangely opposed Christians on this very subject—Pope Francis has announced his support for same-sex Civil Unions although he is head of a church that opposes recognizing gay people at all, and Amy Coney Barratt could be headed into the Supreme Court with her religiously based anti-gay stance (as well as a religiously based anti-reproductive rights stance) that violate the tenets of impartiality and blind justice.
So, today I want to direct our attention back to the Bible and see where we might reliably turn for guidance about sexuality, every sexuality, all sexualities—because there actually is good news from the Bible on the subject of sexuality. Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher and theologian, once sagely and with only a little irony, extolled sexuality as “the domain of all the difficulties, all the spiritual gropings, the dangers and dilemmas, the failure and the joy” in human life! (1964). And yet all told, together with its dangers and dilemmas and its failures and joys, to think about sex is to think about love, and to think about love means reading the Book of Love, and I mean the Bible in which it is proclaimed in nearly every chapter that God is love.
Personally, I do believe, sex is nature’s way of leading us to God. While for some that journey may be instantaneous, for others it can take a lifetime, or even—tragically—take one’s life for failing to find God. Sharon Olds, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet put it this way once:
How do they do it, the ones who make love without love? They are beautiful as dancers, gliding over each other like ice-skaters over the ice. How do they come to the God, to the still waters, and not love the one who came there with them? In their religion, they love the priest instead of the God. They are like great runners: they know they are alone with the road surface, the cold, the wind, The fit of their shoes, their over-all cardiovascular health. They commingle with factors, like the partner in bed, and not the truth.
Basically, we are all just babies—the body craves touch and everybody needs to be held and dandled. But something tells us that sexuality is about more than sexuality, that the pleasure of it, great as that is even when mixed with dangers and dilemmas, leads us into a mutuality and a reciprocity and an intimacy which makes life not just three- but four-dimensional. Many are the people who have not succeeded in reaching this state, only to occupy a desolate solitude of a lifelong duration. Take the movies of any era, like my own, which chronicle the lonely path—Carnal Knowledge, Alfie, Midnight Cowboy—each a contemporary version of the Don Juan legend of a living, and a literal, death.
This emotional poverty only ends when a person finds he or she is not just obeying a natural reflex anymore but is speaking a language without words, articulating through gesture and touch and response the message contained in the same gestures and touches and responses of another person. This emotional poverty only ends when we decide to stay with it, to stay with someone long enough for a personal contact to occur and, when permanent, be long enough for a human relationship to be perfected. But for love to really succeed, for sex to succeed, requires faithfulness, fidelity.
And so we have to come back eventually to the Bible where the principal divine attribute is faithfulness, fidelity—it is what Yahweh proffers to Israel and what Yahweh expects of Israel, a relationship that, in several places in the Old Testament, is actually described in terms of a sexual relationship, so closely is God and sex and faithfulness correlated. When applied to human sexual loving, fidelity will leave us breathlessly saying, “Ain’t love divine!”
As a minister, I was for marriage equality, among other reasons, because I said the church should not stand in the way of any two people who want to promise fidelity and a sexually exclusive relationship to each other. Given the misogynistic track record of heterosexual men, which I learned about in locker rooms, casual conversation, through the lore of American masculinity, and, say, John Updike’s novels, I didn’t see where marriage equality and gay rights would fare any worse.
On the contrary, GLBT couples seeking legalization and blessing of their unions implicitly uphold a model that heterosexual culture could only benefit from. But I just wished that Americans could relax a little and take life in the way the French do when they say, “Chacun a ses sexes”—or, to each according to their sexual inclination (today we would say, orientation).
At the same time, we also have to acknowledge how the human enterprise has been engrossed since nature graduated from asexual to sexual reproduction in mastering the daily consequences of our sexual lives, namely, controlling fertility, avoiding disease, and evading the detection of our utter heedlessness of persons—who is to say when these are tragic, or comic! And whose personal histories were ever free of sexually caused calamities?? The biology of sexual desire is so over-determined and overpowering that it has taken all kinds of religious and societal and familial and even totally invented prohibitions to prevent the runaway horses of our stage-coach from rushing over the cliffs! Fortunately, we survive most of our sexuality’s dangers and dilemmas and find love itself.
All of which belongs under the umbrella of individual privacy, until the day—the great day— when two individuals want to make public their personal covenant, and that’s called marriage. At that point begins real freedom, the real journey of two companions who daily break bread at their conjugal table as they seek together to solve the perplexities of their own personalities as well as of their marriage. We say in the church, let no one put asunder what God has joined together (Mark 10:9), for hereinafter God opens the path to discovery and true freedom.
This whole time we’ve been speaking about a mystery, something much more appropriate for myth, and poetry, song and chant—we must never forget that and we must remember to turn to the poets. And yet a politics follows from this mystery which should be go like this: all couples must be admitted to love’s devotions notwithstanding the obstacles of prejudice and fear and hate and biblicism—I celebrate the LGBTQ community and wish you God’s blessing, in the name of our Creator and Redeemer and the Holy Spirit.
My prayer for you, and all of us today, is that you may find it true that love like this is possible, a love that never gives up, that cares more for the other than for self, that doesn’t want what it doesn’t have, that doesn’t take what isn’t given, that never forces itself on the other. May you share a love that doesn’t fly off the handle or keeps score or revel in anyone’s abasement. May you find a love which looks for the best and keeps going to the end.
So finally I share with you this morning a view of Eliot’s fresh new Rainbow Flag that will be displayed on the façade of your church as a sign of God’s blessing, as soon as equipment and the correct man and woman power become available!