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Widening Welcome

Widening Welcome

A Sermon About Welcoming Gender Different People in the Church

Preached at Hanover Street Presbyterian Church

On April 25, 2004

By the Rev. Thomas C. Davis, Ph.D.



Romans 1: 18-32

Matthew 5: excerpts from 20ff:

[Jesus said]:

        If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven . . . You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors:  . . .You must not commit adultery. But I say this to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart . . .It has also been said:  Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But I say this to you: everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery . . .You have learnt how it was said:  Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked person no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if someone takes you to law and would have your shirt, give him your coat as well. . . .You have learnt how it was said:  You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons and daughters of your Father in heaven. . .For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, don’t they?  . . .You therefore must be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.


Let me tell you about James and Joe.

James is a young African American from Wilmington.  He grew up in a tough neighborhood where lots of kids join gangs and some sell drugs.  But several years ago James joined Urban Promise, a Christian group that uses Hanover’s gym to get kids off the street and into the care of leaders who can help them.  James just graduated from high school. He is articulate. He is poised. He is self-confident. James is going into the military, and aiming for college after that. We would be very pleased to have James as a member of our church.  But this would not always have been so, for it was only about a generation ago that Hanover began to welcome African Americans in any significant numbers. Quite a number of white members left when that welcome was extended. Those who remained have come to believe that this is God’s work:  showing a wider and wider welcome to all of God’s children.

Now, about Joe:

Joe is a young white man from Miami.  He did not grow up in a tough neighborhood, but growing up was still tough on him, because he was not boyish.  Slender, gentle, soft-spoken, Joe got picked on at school and at home. He left home as soon as he could; and without proper mentoring might have ended up in trouble on the streets, or maybe even dead.  But Joe found Project Yes, an organization that works with schools and parents and churches to welcome and nurture gender different kids like him. Joe is articulate. He is poised. He is self-confident.  And he is now not afraid to identify himself as gay. Only about a decade ago Hanover declared that it wanted to fully welcome people like Joe. Quite a number of long-time members left when this welcome was extended.  Those who remained are trying to understand how God’s welcome keeps getting wider and wider. That’s what this sermon is about, our Christian calling to fully welcome gender different people into the body of Christ.

Let me explain this term, “gender different.”  The oldest meaning of gender is not sexual. If you look up the word in the dictionary, you will find that “gender” first meant “born akin to,” that is, born of a certain kind.  For instance, in old England, people would ask, “What gender of herb is that?” meaning not what sex is that herb, but what natural kind of herb is that? Instead of speaking of sexual minorities, I think it would be helpful to speak of gender different people.  Allow the old meaning of “gender” to remind us that these people are of a certain kind, naturally.  They are born so. Of course, the modern meaning of gender will inevitably color my usage of the word, and that’s all right.  Gender different people are different primarily because something about their sexuality is non-ordinary. However, it seems to me that their differentness is far more complex than we will ever realize if we focus solely on sex.

Another reason for using the term “gender different people,” is that GLBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender) is not a broad enough term to encompass all the different kinds of people who have a stake in the movement for just inclusion and healthy self-image.  For instance, it does not include intersexuals —infants who are born with ambiguous genitalia, and thus cannot be medically identified as either male or female. The accepted protocol for helping such children to cope in a bi-gendered society used to be surgery plus hormone treatments, in order to render the child either a boy or a girl.  These days, however, after some miserable failures of this protocol, more and more parents of intersexual children are deciding that it’s society that must be changed, not their children. It’s society’s job to accept their children as God made them, which is neither male nor female, but gender different.

Furthermore, the term, GLBT, does not include some pre-pubescent children whose bodies clearly identify them as either boys or girls, but who nevertheless can’t seem to fit into society’s gender expectations.  Such children have little or no sense yet of sexual self-identity, because they haven’t gone through puberty. They are sexually latent, as psychologists say. Thus, their differentness has much more to do with gender than with sex.  Such children, often are picked on at home and in school because “they don’t act right.” Because they are not yet adult, they don’t have the self-awareness to identify themselves as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, –and indeed, later they may self-identify as none of these.  But one thing is certain: When they are growing up they desperately need to be accepted and loved; and because often they are not accepted and loved, many commit suicide, in much higher numbers than gender ordinary children. Alice worked several years in Miami with an organization called Project Yes, whose central purpose was to reduce the suicide rate of gender different children, by teaching parents, teachers, and religious leaders, to  nurture such children with compassion, instead of insisting that they squeeze themselves into gender categories that don’t fit.

Another gender of  persons not included in the GLBT rubric are bi-gendered persons.  A bi-gendered person is not the same as a bi-sexual person. A bi-sexual person is one who experiences sexual attraction to both men and women.  A bi-gendered person is one who feels he/she is fully both male and female, regardless of what anatomy he/she has. To further complicate matters, according to clinical research, a bi-gendered person is different from an androgynous person, who feels neither male nor female.  And to complicate matters even more, some children are born with male and female organs externally and internally, while others have the external organs of one gender and the internal organs of the other.  They are called hermaphrodites.

I have not yet mentioned transgender persons.  A transgender person is one who feels that he or she got the wrong body by birth.  He feels like a woman trapped in a man’s body; or she feels like a man trapped in a woman’s body.  Sometimes through sex change surgery transgender people seek the body that fits their mind and spirit.  Then they are called transsexuals; but perhaps only briefly, because if the treatment works, they eventually get accepted into a bi-gendered world as the gender they are convinced is authentically theirs; and then they just blend in, because almost nobody gets up tight about gender ordinary people, just gender different ones.

Perhaps by now your head is swimming, as mine did when I got educated on such matters in order to be a better counselor .  One can be stunned to discover that creation isn’t as simple as you thought! If one is not tolerant of ambiguity, the shock can lead to denial of obvious evidence:  “All this sexual-psychological-anatomical parsing is just too much,” some will say. “Let’s just stick with what the Bible says: that God created us male and female, period!  Things are so much simpler that way. As for the people who just can’t seem to fit in, well, they’re either badly confused, or else willfully perverted, as Paul wrote. They’ll just have to get with the program, God’s program.  Then they’ll be fine!”

Yes, there’s the nub, isn’t it.  The separation between Christians on these issues of gender difference chiefly comes down to how complicated we think God’s creation is.  The main conflict isn’t so much about how to interpret the Bible; it’s much more about what is the nature of nature? Those who have little tolerance for complication and ambiguity keep insisting that all these allegedly unusual but nevertheless natural distinctions are not natural at all.  They’re unnatural, abnormal, against God’s intention, and therefore disgusting. But those who, like Shakespeare, are willing to entertain that there are stranger things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our present philosophy, well, these folk tend to see things very differently.

How can we resolve this very deep division of opinion about the nature of nature–by pounding the table (or the Bible) and insisting we’ve got the right take?  We’re pretty tough on the Taliban for managing conflict that way. No, since the Enlightenment, much of the world has had another way: Don’t settle things by appeal to dogma.  Question reigning assumptions. Observe and reason from observations. Especially, reason together. Listen to divergent views.

It’s particularly important that we listen to the voices of gender different people as we reason together.  That’s why sermon two of this series, to be delivered by Elder Larry Peterson, will hearken to the voices of gay men and lesbians outside our congregation, and why sermon three will listen to voices inside our congregation:  those of a gay man, a lesbian, and a straight man whose feelings and convictions have changed over the years. Because there is much anxiety, and sometimes even hostility toward gender different people in our society, many citizens never get the chance to listen to them speak about themselves, or dialogue with them.  Often, the anxieties of gender ordinary people or the fear of gender different people in the closet prevent such discussions from taking place. This is tragic. It’s disastrous to navigate through life by ignorant stereotypes and appeals to old dogma. All of us deserve better.

As the worship committee and I were thinking about this series of sermons, I received a request to address some Bible passages that are often used to clobber gender different people; for instance, the one we heard this morning, from the first chapter of Romans.  The request went something like this: “Please teach the congregation that such texts are not against homosexuality per se.” Well, one could take that sort of approach to defend gender different people against abuse; but I’m not going to, because it supports the assumption that Christians ought always to obey the moralizing voices that they hear in the Bible.  And this assumption must be challenged. Sometimes, even if we have rightly understood a biblical moralizing voice, we ought not be bound by it. For example, I don’t agree with Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 where he declares that citizens should always obey their governors, because they are God’s agents for keeping evildoers in check. They are never a threat to good citizens, he says.  Do you believe that rulers always act on behalf of God and are never a threat to good citizens? This moral premise seems preposterous, given what I read in the newspapers. I don’t agree either with the voice that we hear in Colossians 3:22 which says, “Slaves, give entire obedience to your earthly masters.” (Incidentally, neither did many of your forebears in the early years of this congregation, who opposed the institution of slavery).  I do not agree with Paul where he says in 1 Corinthians 14: 34: “In all congregations of God’s people, women should not address the meeting. They have no license to speak, but should keep their place as the law directs.” (Surely many of you must also disagree with that opinion, since there are many, many women Elders in this church). I don’t even agree with the voice of Jesus which we heard in this morning’s Matthew reading, the voice that says that the only just grounds for divorce is marital infidelity.  (And apparently, neither do many faithful Christians these days who have divorced their spouses to protect themselves from unrelenting physical or mental abuse.)

So, I won’t go to great pains to prove that Paul wasn’t really against homosexuality per se.  It seems clear to me that Paul thought men making love with men was perverted and disgusting, and women making love with women, likewise.  I’m not going to try to explain away his disgust. I’m just going to be honest and say that I don’t share it, given what I know about gender different people from my own inquiry and experience.  I’m convinced that God’s biological creation is much more complex than Paul realized. It doesn’t bother me that Paul and I disagree about quite a number of things. Though I honor him as the founder of Christianity, I don’t feel duty bound to follow all of his moral opinions; and occasionally, not even those of the red-letter voice of Jesus!  God gave me a heart and a mind, and I believe that God wants me to use both boldly, having courage to stand for what I believe is right in my own place and time, as the Spirit leads me.

This posture may seem brazen and heretical to some of my colleagues in presbytery.  They may say: “Tom, how dare you encourage your flock to disobey the Bible! What authority does any Christian have to second guess scripture?”  Well, here is my answer: I claim the same authority which Jesus had, when he preached in the Spirit and said, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.”  When he did that, he was picking bones with the Bible, you know. Every time he said, “you have heard it said,” he was referring to a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus was not trying to destroy the authority of scripture when he said, “but I say unto you. . .” He was trying to take people to a deeper level, trying to persuade them to observe the spirit of the law instead of the mere letter of it.  In the case of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” he did something even bolder. He called them to disobey a biblical law which kept vengeance to a minimum by limiting recrimination.  But he did that by challenging people to take an even greater step of self-restraint, and not recriminate at all!  He said to them, love your enemies!  Don’t retaliate against them at all!  His advice went against the old law, but respected its intention.  Every time Jesus said, “but I say unto you,” his advice had to do with compassion.  Dig deeper, go further, follow the path of compassion, Jesus taught. Be perfectly compassionate, as your heavenly Father is.

Well, that’s the authority I claim when I urge you not to follow the opinions of our faithful forebears just because they’re in the Bible.  Instead, follow the Spirit’s call to compassion. When the abolitionists called for the end of slavery even though the Christian scriptures said slaves should obey their masters in everything, they were following a call to compassion.  When the women suffragettes went to jail to gain women the right to vote, even though the Christian scriptures told women to sit down and shut up, they were following a call to compassion. And when I challenge you to learn everything you can about gender different people, and then see whether you still feel the way that Paul does about men making love with men, or women making love with women, I feel I’ve good authority for doing that; for I believe our Lord calls each and every one of us to be deeply, deeply compassionate, and as bold in the Spirit as he was.  

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