Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nothing and No One is Unclean

Over at Mark Harris’s blog, Preludium, he has posted a thread titled “We rise to play a greater part”. I have no idea how to make a link. I will email and ask my webmaster to edit this post in order to add the link to the thread on Preludium. [Link added. The webmaster]

Let me say right up front, Mark has said all I would want to say, and probably better, about why I believe sex between people of the same sex, who are in loving, committed relationships is no more sinful than sex between me and my male spouse.

At this moment, there are sixteen comments, most favorable and supportive of Mark’s article, one obvious troll, and another who may or may not be a troll but who asks for the scriptural warrants for what Mark writes and what I believe. I say may or may not be a troll because we have given these warrants before, ad nauseum to no avail, but maybe the commenter has never seen them before. Maybe she is sincere.

The reason our scriptural warrants carry no weight with those on the other side of the sexuality debate is that we do not read the Bible the same way; we do not have the same purpose when we engage the scriptures.

I read the scriptures as the collected stories of the people of God and their experiences with the one true God. Scripture is not the final word; scripture is the first word. It points to the final Word, which is a “who”, not a “which” – Jesus, a person. When I read scripture, I am often convicted of failing to love enough, my neighbor, my God, myself. I often find the understanding of the ancient people who wrote these things, and their experiences of God, are far different from mine. They cause me to reflect on my understanding and experience, and serve sometimes as a corrective, sometimes as a reminder that I owe my very life – literally – to God as I have experienced God, as the love of Jesus and the breath of the Holy Spirit, and to honor that experience.

The scriptures are full of things that are good for humankind in any era. They are also full of things that are culturally imprisoned in the time in which they were written. Who among you would refrain from wearing fabrics of mixed fibers, or refuse to fight to free a slave today? Yet mixed fiber fabrics are proscribed, and slavery is assumed as a natural state.

Let me take a tiny break here and say that I am not writing this to convince anyone. There is a request for the scriptural warrants for what Mark and I believe. To baldly give them, without stating how I approach scripture, would buy into an alternative way of approaching scripture from mine, a way that mines scripture for proofs, for rules to follow and rules to hold against others. This is not the way I read scripture, so we will be talking at cross purposes, even as I give the warrants that direct me in supporting the same degree of acceptance, appreciation and support of loving same sex couples as is accorded to mixed sex couples.

In short, I read scripture for the big picture; I appreciate the details; I follow Jesus, not words; I use the words to follow him only when necessary. I do not expect to convince anyone who does not agree with me. I write for those who are hungering and thirsting to hear that they are beloved by God, they and those they love, just as they are.

And now, to do exactly what those who disagree with me do.

The texts.

Mark 2:27.

Jesus is caught letting his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, because they are hungry. The Pharisees say, see, he lets his disciples break the law! Jesus quotes back to them scriptures where David himself broke the law to feed his companions. Then Jesus says,

“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

The Sabbath is a gift from God, a day of rest when the rest of the world is working their slaves and their animals and themselves relentlessly without thought for spending time with one another and with God. It was made for our good, a counter-cultural, revolutionary act, to stop for one day, do no work, have your slaves and animals do no work, do nothing to create, just bask in the glory of creation and of having been created.

However, the gift of Sabbath as law, something for which we were created to keep and obey, violates the very giftedness of Sabbath. Therefore, law can only kill the spirit both of the law itself and the human being who is compelled to keep it. Whereas, keeping Sabbath out of love for God, humankind, and all creation, is a giving and taking of gift between us and God.

If you are hungry, go ahead and pick grain on the Sabbath. God will not smite you for it.

In the same way, the Levitical laws, and those portions of St. Paul which are read as condemning same sex relationships in all times for all cultures, have become death rather than life to people who the writers of these laws never even considered possible – monogamous, committed, loving partners affectioned one to another who at the same time have rich faith lives before God in Christ.

Luke 10:25 and following: The Good Samaritan

It is better to go through life defiled and unclean than to use the law to make fences that keep out the neighbors to whom you don’t want to have to show unconditional love, fences like “love the sinner, hate the sin”.

A lawyer plays games with Jesus, trying to find out where the boundaries, the fence posts are beyond which he does not have to love one’s neighbor. Jesus tells a story.

A man is beaten up, stripped and robbed. He is left for dead. For all the priest and the levite know, he IS dead. Even if he isn’t, without any clothes to indicate what kind of person he is – God forbid, he might be a shepherd, one of the untouchables! – they will not go near him. They will not risk defilement for the sake of common care for a fellow human being.

The only person who will do so is a Samaritan, himself one of the unclean ones the priest and levite wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole even if he were dying. The unclean do what God would do, the loving thing, better than the righteous, those who keep the law.

The God figure in this story is the unclean Samaritan, God who has made him/herself unclean, in Jesus, to save us from ourselves, our sin of fence-building, our sin of fear of God – fear that God will destroy us, yes, if we don’t keep the rules and get everything right, but even more, fear that God might love my hated enemy just as much as God loves me, without any of the conditions scripture gives us a warrants to say “love the sinner, hate the sin”, which is just another way to hate one another.

Tough love is not love.

And now, the text to which the questioner on Mark’s blog herself alludes when she mentions eating bacon,

Acts 10:1-16 Nothing, and no one, is unclean.

It is so tempting to read this story and say, with a sigh of relief, oh thank God, it’s only about what we eat. But remember, that is not the way I read scripture. Already, I have seen more in the Sabbath passage than just keeping Sabbath or not. I have read in the Good Samaritan story that it is better for me to become defiled and unclean before God, if embracing LGBT relationships will do that, and that, in fact, that is just what Jesus is inviting us to do.

I read scripture, initially, especially if it is a story I know almost by heart, just as it is written, the plain bald words on the paper – in the case of Acts 10:1-16, a story about how Peter was taught that no food is unclean, so he can go and visit Cornelius in his house. I miss the “therefore”: Therefore, Cornelius is not unclean, nor is his family.

One day I was reading this passage, as assigned in the lectionary (the rotation of readings of scripture over a 2-3 year period) and suddenly it was as though scales had fallen from my eyes. I was not reading the Bible looking for warrants abrogating the Levitical code or the passages in the Pauline writings that were being applied to gay and lesbian persons in this day and culture. I was just doing my morning devotions.

Suddenly, this reading became much more than about an old taboo we had long given up in Christianity, the taboo against certain foods. Suddenly the passage became real, and alive, here, and now. NOTHING is unclean! NO ONE is unclean! Jesus has set us free in ways I never even expected.

I was very excited. At about the same time, I started to read of others who had had the same revelation about this passage.

And I also had to endure this truth: Nothing in heaven or in earth, in scripture or experience of God in Christ Jesus, will dissuade those who are convinced, or determined to believe, that loving relationships between persons of the same sex are just as holy as is mine with my husband.

The council in Jerusalem, in Luke’s time, didn’t get Peter’s experience, either. They right away built a fence around this law-blowing vision. Read Acts 11:1 and following. Peter has to justify to the council why he went to gentiles. He tells them the vision. The council is silenced.

Later, the council has to give up circumcision of the gentiles as a requirement for becoming a follower of Jesus. So they build the fence: anyone who does right is okay; gentiles can become Christians but they must abstain from things that are polluted.

The fence becomes the law. Humans point to the fence in order not to have to live the mind blowing, law blowing vision. It is not because it is in the scriptures that our fellow humans continue to harp on about the sinfulness of gay and lesbian relationships. It is because these fellow Christians don’t want to see anything different. Humans choose the fence over the vision because it suits us to do so.

There is my answer to the questioner on Mark Harris’s blog, Preludium. It will not convince anyone who does not want to be convinced. I know that. Instead, I have given an account of why I am where I am in my faith journey with God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Do not be afraid.


Suzer said...

Thank you for this, Lois. :)

Two Auntees said...

Your words are beautiful and a balm to our soul. I appreciate your interpretation of these biblical passages. You are right. Not everyone will agree with your interpretation but it may bring light and hope to some.

Anonymous said...

I agree that people are all not "unclean." All people can come before God in repentance and faith.

But are there still people who do "unclean" acts? Are there still sins?

The only scriptural warrants I've seen regarding homosexual sex are tenuous at best at best. They include David and Jonathon, making a man who had another man killed so that David's adultery would not be found out to be an example of sexual morality. The other example I've seen is the Centurian's Servant where Jesus supposedly blesses a soldier's homosexual slave, making the master-slave relationship the biblical example of homosexual sex.

I believe that the problem comes down to how do we know God's will. Those on the progressive side will state that God's will is known primarily through personal experience and finding out who we are in our hearts. Thus everything that stops us from being "authentic" to our "true selves" (as we perceive ourselves to be) is against God's will. Those on the conservative side say that God's will is found found by God's self-revelation. The authentic and reliable record of that revelation is found in Holy Scripture. So, if Scripture is to be followed where it is unequivocal. I, for one, would gladly support the blessing of same sex marriages if you could but show me where scripture shows homosexual sex to be blessed or where Holy Scripture contradicts Leviticus 18, Romans 1, I Cor 6 and the other passages that speak directly to homosexual sex.

Phil Snyder

Lois Keen said...

Phil, I stand by what I wrote.

Suzer and two auntees, thank you for your comments. I am glad my writing has been for you words of life.

For all reading here, there are a number of people to whom I do not respond. They do not really want a reply, in the spirit of give and take, but, rather, to dominate. The question Phil raises is, for instance, a red herring and, most likely, a category mistake. It forces me to answer “yes” or “no”. I choose to do neither. If I answer “yes, there are acts which are unclean”, it then forces me to go the next logical step and say it then goes without saying that those performing those acts are, therefore, unclean. I don’t believe that. I don’t use the categories of “clean” or “unclean” at all, except in the negative, as I did in the title to this post.

If you want, you can follow this same argument, with Phil and Sharon over at Mark’s blog Preludium. It goes nowhere there, just as it will here, because it’s meant to go nowhere.

This one time, I will respond this way. I do not consider the ways in which lesbian or gay persons make love to be “unclean” or even improper. Keep in mind that these identical ways of making love are done by mixed sex couples as well, and I’m sure we heteros don’t want our bedrooms policed in the way the church is trying to do to gay and lesbian persons.

Furthermore, those non-missionary type ways of making love, which are not unclean when performed by mixed sex couples, do not of necessity make those ways of making love “unclean” when they are performed by lesbian women or gay men by virtue of the fact that the lovers are gay or lesbian.

If we’re concerned that the couples are not married, then let them marry “rather than burn”.

That’s it. The one time only reply to a Phil comment. I don’t recommend it for anyone posting here, but I won’t stop you if you try. However, I do recommend that, instead of replying directly, you do what I often do, which is to reply with a non sequitor. I tell one of my faith stories instead. Here I would probably tell the story of how I came to know that Jesus’s love is unconditional, regardless of what we are taught, and that it doesn’t depend on our repentance or our faith, nor does our acceptance by him depend on those acts on our part. I found that those acts followed my acceptance, and I performed them only because it became clear to me that even if I never changed my behaviors at all, I would still be loved, be acceptable, and be with Jesus in the kingdom.

This is why some say I’m not a Christian. I am. It is Jesus’s love to which I responded. And besides, I’m baptized, and that is indelible.

Phil, God loves you just as you are. Suzer and two auntees, God loves you and yours just as you are. Go in peace.
Lois Keen

Anonymous said...

I thought I could get reasoned response here, but I get a non-sequitor instead.

I am sinner, redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God does love me as I am, but He loves me too much to leave me as I am. God loves you as you are also, but He loves you too much to leave you that way.

Just remember that there is no sin, be ever so venial, that will not keep you separated from God if you insist on keeping that sin instead of clinging to God. Likewise, there is no sin - no matter how terrible - that God will not forgive if you but turn to him in faith and repentance.

Performing "unclean" acts does not make us "unclean persons" That is a category mistake. It is, however, possible to defile ourselves. "But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication (=porneia all sex outside of marriage), theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man...."

Let us not pretend that baptism frees us from the consequences of our sin or nothing can harm our relationship with God after baptism.

Phil Snyder

Phil Snyder

revLois Keen said...

I stand by what I wrote.

To all who read here, May the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


Anonymous said...

Life itself is full of strange turns, and sometimes a non-sequitur is the best way of answering a question posed in debate.

I think Lois has told us a lot about the way she approaches the Bible and how it speaks about ethical reasoning.


Here's a story I like: Seeing a dog walk by, a monk asked Joshu, a Zen master, "Does that dog have Buddha-nature?" The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted: "MU!"

Mu means nothingness or emptiness. That is all the answer the monk received.


I've always thought this was a very oblique response to a question:
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” - Matt 9: 9-13.


Christopher Calderhead

Anonymous said...


There is a story I love that I got out of Joan Chittister's book on the Rule of Benedict.

There was a novice monk who came to the Master of Novices and asked: "Master, what must I do to attain God?"

The Master looked at the monk and replied: "To attain God, you must do two things."

The novice thought to himself "Two things? Only two things? I can do two things!"

"First," said the master, "you must know that nothing you can ever do or think or say will ever help you to attain God."

Completely deflated and filled with fear and dread that he would never attain God, the novice responds: "And the second?"

The Master looked at him and lovingly said "You must live as if you don't know the first."

God desires mercy and the only thing that we can give God that is not His already is our praise and thanks. We have to surrender all of ourselves to God's love and to His grace and power to remake us. We tend to think that we are good people who just need to be made better by God. But in realilty, we are not. We are sinners. We are rebels who need to lay down our arms in surrender.

Jesus came, not to the righteous, but to us rebels. He came not to make us good, but to kill us so we could be raised to resurrection life. Our task is to know that we cannot acheive new life on our own or by our own efforts, but we are still to die daily to sin.

Phil Snyder

Apocketor2 said...

You have a very interesting approach to Scripture -- what a lot of people call "cherry-picking".

I'm curious how you decided that the Scriptures that speak of Jesus are authentic and to be trusted, but not the rest?

And if that's the case, how do you deal with John 1 where the writer explicitly calls Jesus the embodiment of God's Word?

Jan said...

Thank you for this. I read it a few days ago, but after various comments, thought I should come back and say how I much I appreciate your thoughts and words. Well spoken and reasoned.

revLois Keen said...

Thank you, Jan. I appreciate it, and am glad my words have been helpful.