What Would Jesus Say About Gay Pride?

A Sermon by Rev. Rich Tafel
June 13, 2021

This weekend is LGBT Pride also known as Gay Pride or even just by the word “Pride” here in Washington DC. Most major cities around the world will celebrate some type of pride event this month chosen to align to the month of the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969.

The topic for today’s sermon is what would Jesus think of gay pride. I want to thank Maria who had suggested it this as a sermon topic in March in reaction to the pope’s statements on gay marriage.

In my lifetime, the gay pride event has really changed as has support for LGBT rights. Originally, marches were an act of courage and political support while today it plays out more like St. Patrick’s Day party with lots of young people standing in long lines to get into gay bars. Once so politically controversial that politicians counted it an act of courage to show up, yesterday the Vice President of the US and her husband marched in the festivities where shirts saying Love is love.

Even churches are changing. The Lutheran Church recently ordained transgendered bishop and a poll this week showed that a majority of Republicans and over half of evangelicals under 30 now support gay marriage.

But not everyone is celebrating.

Many Christian churches continue to oppose the idea of gay and lesbian equality in America. Just last March, Pope Francis made his most anti-gay marriage statements to date saying it is “not ordered to the Creator’s plan,” and calling gay unions “illicit,” saying, God “cannot bless sin.” But event then reaction was swift within his own church. Catholic bishops in Germany have announced a new mini reformation pledging to begin blessing gay marriages in defiance of the pope. Back in the US, 60% of Roman Catholics support gay marriage.

Things are evolving on this issue and even my pastoring a church is a sign of progress.

How would Jesus view this issue of gay and lesbian pride?

As we usually do Sunday let’s look to the Bible, then to insights in our tradition and also learn from our the revelation of our own experience.

Let’s start with the Bible. There are exhaustive books on the topic of homosexuality and Christianity. We’ve spoken about some of this in previous sermon discussions. Let me highlight the Bible verses most associated with this issue that include passages of Leviticus, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Paul’s epistles.

The passages from Leviticus represent a strict and rigid time of hard rules for a wandering people in the desert who needed to pro-create to survive. Other than the rules about homosexuality, most of the others about what types of food you could eat or clothes you can wear or, as I noted in the newsletter, even the tattoos have been all ignored today. Modern readers who pick out the anti-gay text ignore the variety of other prohibitions.

Worse, if you insist that the Bible be taken completely literally, the punishment in those ancient rules is the death penalty. Very few fundamentalists are calling for the death penalty for homosexuals with the exception of ISIS.

What we see is people picking and choosing texts to follow and others to ignore. People who claim to be literal Bible readers can’t have it both ways, they need to admit they are interpreting Scripture based on their own worldview. Our tradition teaches us to read these Old Testament texts looking for a deeper symbolic meaning to apply to our lives today.

The sin of sodomy was named for the threat of a gang rape that we read in today’s readings. But Jesus suggested that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality and didn’t mention homosexuality. Same with Swedenborg who states it is a metaphor of the dangers of self-love.

So, what you have is interpretation and general picking and choosing of things you don’t like and using the Old Testament to back you up.

What about the New Testament?

Jesus says nothing directly about homosexuality, though it didn’t exist as much in his day the way we might think of today as a lifestyle commitment between adults.
Jesus does speak out about a man and women coming together in marriage. There are scholarly studies that make a case that when he healed a Roman’s soldiers slave he was actually healing his lover, but scholars don’t agree on this.

We can all agree that Jesus focuses his teachings on living a life of love of others as the true path to loving God and the purpose of life. He pointedly suggests that religious people are often using their power of condemnation to hide their own sins.

In the gospel today he says look at their fruits, and I think this is the best advice we can seek from Scripture. It means when facing tough issues, don’t look at what people say or claim, but look at how they treat other people. Are they kind and loving? Then, they are following Jesus. Are they cruel and mean? Then, they follow the hellish forces.

Jesus also calls us to be honest—saying that the truth will set you free.

In addition to Jesus in the gospels there’s sections of the New Testament called epistles or letters.

The apostle Paul is credited with writing most of the New Testament through letters he sent. He does directly address the issue of men giving up their natural love for women to be with men. Most scholars believe that Paul is referring to temple prostitution.

Paul also advocates for other traditional cultural rules, for example, for slaves to remain in submission to their masters. Southern churches in the US used that as evidence of their right to hold slaves, but few ministers even of fundamentalists churches would defend those texts today. But, here again, if you embrace Paul literally you would likely be anti-gay, but pro-slave holder.

What insights can we get from our own tradition of deeper insights to Scripture? Our tradition is fairly unique among Christians in that we see the gospel stories as having deeper and higher spiritual meaning and the focus of our spiritual growth. We do not see Paul’s writings has having this deeper meaning and they are less sacred.

Okay, so if that’s true, shouldn’t Swedenborgians be all about love and inclusion and they can leave some of Paul’s problematic passages behind.

Not so fast, Swedenborg wrote in depth about the deep spiritual meaning of the masculine and feminine spiritual energy of God and wrote an entire book called “Marriage Love,” where he’s speaking about the male and female coming together into a unique union of love and truth.

Though our branch of Swedenborgianism in inclusive toward gay people both ordaining gays and lesbians and allowing for gay marriage ceremonies; our more conservative branches interpret Swedenborg’s masculine and feminine teachings to forbid inclusion of gay ministers and marriages and, they go as far as to interpret Swedenborg to forbid female ministers being ordained.

As I’ve shared in my sermon on transgendered rights, I personally think there is powerful truth in the spiritual energy of the masculine and feminine in God, but I don’t think it is only found simply in biologically male and female. As humanity evolves spiritually, I think we’ll evolve to embrace more of the positive attributes of both the masculinity and femineity within ourselves as we balance our compassion and truth in our life.

We’ve looked at the Bible and our tradition, now let’s look at our experience.
In my own lifetime, I attended my first really large national pride parade in my first visit to DC back in 1988. It’s hard to put into words how empowering it was seeing thousands of other out people out on the street. I would describe it as a spiritual experience. What guided me during that period was that verse from Jesus: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I didn’t know how it would play out, but I did know the danger of lying.

There is a profound spiritual power in removing shame and fear and embracing authenticity and the truth about yourself. When we try to hide parts of ourselves to please others it doesn’t work out well for anyone and opens us up to evil forces.

Gay people in my life who showed me mentoring and kindness is also telling in their kindness.

My mentor Peter Gomes was the famous preacher at Harvard served as a profound mentor in my life, but he had a deep secret that he was gay. I was younger and out and we spent many a conversation talking him out of the closet. When he did a wrote, “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Your Heart and Head” he helped many Christians see the better way to read Scripture concerning gay inclusion famously saying something appropriate for today, “’The question should not be “What would Jesus do?” but rather, more dangerously, “What would Jesus have me do?” The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semidivine human beings to do impossible things.”

My other mentor at Harvard was Henri Nouwen truly one of the most spiritual teachers I have ever met. And, he too, was wrestling with coming out himself. I read his spiritual insights daily to this day. He wrote possibly referring to his own struggle to come out, “The greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection.”

One of my other great inspirations is the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The most recent biography “Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,”
biographer Charles Marsh makes a convincing case Bonhoeffer was in love with his best friend Bethge wrote guidance for us today saying, “Every word I utter is subject to the requirement that it shall be true.”

Being honest is fundamental to our spiritual growth that includes the good, the bad and the ugly.

The inclusion of LGBT people within the faith community is only now beginning and as the church evolves it will become more inclusive.

How does pride fit into all of this?

Pride, as we often define it as arrogance, is something Jesus warns against. But in the case of gay pride is more an example of the opposing shame. It’s an embrace of your authentic self. It’s embracing that the truth will set you free. We all wrestle with different types of shame.

The shame the church has placed on LGBT people comes in many forms. During the 90’s when I was a leader for gay inclusion in America’s culture wars, I remember close friends discouraging me from speaking out couching their support for me as their support of addict saying,d “It’s one thing to be an alcoholic, but it is another to go TV and be proud of it.” In other words, being gay was a bad thing they tolerated, but they thought it awful I wasn’t ashamed of myself.

Gay pride is a way for gay people to overcome the shame they’ve had dumped on their head from an early age. Sadly, much of that dumping has been done in the name of Jesus, turning many gay people away from God altogether. I believe this a great sin committed by the church.

The spiritual life means we all constantly need to face our sins, commit to change and then grow. Awareness is the key, not shame. God challenges us but never shames us.

This ties into Maria’s question about the pope’s comments in March this year.

I’m generally a fan of the current Pope, when you consider the institution he’s in. His comments in March were not pastoral and I won’t be surprised to learn someday that he never wrote them. But imagine if the Pope had confessed rather than condemn, saying something like, “My church has participated in and hidden some of the worst sexual sins of modern times. Let me get my own house in order before I comment on the lifestyles that consenting adults seek to live in loving relationships.”

When shame is used by churches and the truth is suppressed, evil grows out of it. It comes across as hypocrisy, which turns people off. At the same time the church was out publicly condemning gay equality, we now know many of these same church leaders were covering up for pedophiles and moving them around to new parishes without their parishioners knowledge leading the abuse of many boys and girls.

The same is true among evangelicals who spoke constantly about sexual morality, but now we find there has been widespread cover ups of sexual abuse in their churches. Last week a leaked letter from a southern Baptist leader, Russel Moore, up sexual abuse and blaming the victims.

Church should some humility in getting their own houses in order before throwing stones at what they don’t understand.

Gay people have been treated pretty cruelly by Christians and it is now time for Christian Churches who engaged in this behavior to seek forgiveness for their actions.

Today, most LGBT people are no longer mad at the church they are indifferent, and I get it. They have left church behind as irrelevant.

This is sad part for the church, but it is sad for them. By discriminating against them the church has cut off many gays and lesbians from the love and wisdom of Jesus. As they face questions about meaning and purpose and living a good life, they are more likely to look other, often unhealthy, paths for happiness, not as fulfilling as a life of faith. Addiction rates among the LGBT community remain higher than the general public as people anesthetize their pain from shame.

In the absence of deeper faith, our consumer culture has also jumped in offering a materialistic and status path solution to acceptance that will be brutally unsatisfying. Businesses now see a market and aggressively play to the desire of acceptance from the gay consumer with rainbow flags adorning bars, banks and restaurants.

What would Jesus think about gay pride?

I think he’d say to a gay person, “You were created in love. I love you in ways you can’t imagine. God wants nothing but good for you. Leave the shame behind and embrace your authentic self and help me in my goal to create more love and kindness into this world.”

And whether you are gay or straight or transgender or queer, Jesus is saying the same thing to you.

My hope for Church of the Holy City is that we might become a place that is radically inclusive and welcoming and healing to the LGBT community and prove through our fruits that the God we follow is a God of love and wants nothing but the best for them. I think we’re on our way to becoming that type of bridge.

Happy Pride!