Not peace, but rather division

Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 

May I speak in the name of …..

Attitudes towards homosexuality divide much of the church, society and the world.  Today is the day of the Montreal Pride March and some of us from the cathedral will be going it – and some will not be going on it – and many will be indifferent to it.  Our cathedral – like every family – has many attitudes towards many very important issues. We are not all the same and we do not all have the same thoughts, ideas or opinions.

And – indeed – we do not have the same thoughts, ideas or opinions that we had five years ago. We have changed – for better or for worse.

About ten years ago I changed.  I decided – finally – that I had to challenge my liberal attitude towards homosexuality with the hard texts of the Bible.  The text I proclaimed day by day as the Word of the Lord – thanks be to God.  As a liberal I had already accepted that we don’t accept everything we read in the Bible – Noah, Adam and Eve, the snake –  We eat lobster, slavery is not tolerated, and we live in a capitalist world which challenges our use of money and in a military world which challenges Jesus’s apparent pacifism.

But what of homosexuality?  Perhaps like many of you, I was taught that the Bible is quite clear and unequivocal in condemning homosexuality.  Everyone just knows that!  At Seminary I learned that some of the old texts our forebears used to use to condemn homosexuality are now pretty well universally seen to have been misunderstood  – Sodom and Gommorah was destroyed not because of homosexuality but because of homosexual gang rape – and gang rape is wrong whether heterosexual or homosexual.  –  We need to be very clear what we are talking about, especially when we’re dealing with people’s lives – like Moses we need to take our shoes off when we stand on Holy Ground !

But – there still are a handful of texts in the Bible which seem to say No.  In fact there are probably only six verses in the whole bible – two in the old testament and four in the new testament which seem to condemn homosexuality – that’s six out of a total of over 30 thousand verses – that’s how important this issue is to God! So let’s look at the old testament first;

Leviticus 20:13 – is probably the most obvious example and is almost identical to the one other text in the old testament which is Leviticus 18:22

 “if a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.”

That seems pretty clear – on the face of it!

So, with a heavy heart, I opened my bible –  afraid of what I would find.  Now I am lucky.  I have been able to study Greek and Hebrew so that I can read the Bible in its original languages – so I looked hard at my Hebrew text of Leviticus 20:13 – and even with my limited undergraduate grasp of Hebrew I could see that the verse in front of me did not say what my English translation wanted it to say.  At the most basic level the word ‘as’ was just not there.  I began to smell a homophobic rat! – and actually I began to feel pretty angry.  The text in front of me seemed to say :  “ if a man beds a male – and then there were two strange words – meaning something like  “bedding a woman”  – in Hebrew Mishkevei – ishah –  but what does ‘bedding a woman’ mean in this context? , I wondered.

So I did what we all do in this situation. I turned to Google and there hidden amongst the whacky websites telling me that the whole bible was written by aliens were a few sensible scholarly articles.  In fact I was not the first person to make this shocking discovery about Leviticus 20:13 –way back in the 4th Century after Jesus the Jewish scholars were already wondering what this strange phrase could possibly mean – mishkevei ishah.  Why doesn’t my bible have a footnote, I wondered – another homophobic rat, I thought !

Now – at this point – you need to understand the Lawyers of the New Testament. Their task was not to sort out immigration applications and mortgages – but to define what counted as breaking the Torah.  – A woman carrying her baby in her arms in an open field on the Sabbath breaks the Torah – it is work – A woman carrying her baby in her arms inside a walled city on the Sabbath is not work – it does not break the Torah.   Which is why the city of Montreal has several eruvim within its boundaries.

So you can see that it mattered a great deal what this odd phrase  “mishkevei ishah” means – because it’s not all ‘lying with a male” which is condemned – it’s only lying with a male ‘mishkevei ishah’.   The qualification makes the general permissible – that’s a basic rabbinical rule.  Another example – perhaps somewhat easier to understand – is the prohibition to eat “meat cooked in milk”  – the qualification ‘cooked in milk” means that– “eating meat “in general is all right – it’s only meat cooked with dairy – the qualification –  which is forbidden.  So it’s only ‘mishkevei ishah’ which is condemned – that’s pretty important.

And so in the fourth century after Jesus the rabbis debated and debated and debated a bit more  – what exactly does  ‘mishkevei ishah’ mean – and they came up with many, varied and colourful ideas – from homosexual sex, of course, to a man taking a male into his wife’s tent and bed or using her sheets.   By the 11th century the great Jewish scholar – Rashi – was still debating the same text and coming up with some more pretty graphic descriptions.

So it seemed strange to me that our English language translators – catholic and protestant of course – were all so sure that they knew exactly what this curious verse meant when our Jewish brothers and sisters and scholars are not nearly so certain.

Then I turned to the New Testament – perhaps the New Testament would be clearer.  There are four verses which seem to condemn homosexuality: 1 Corinthians 6:9 , 1 Timothy 1:10 and Romans 1: 26 and 27.  In both Corinthians and Timothy the Greek word used is arsenokoitai – translated uncompromisingly in my modern Bible as ‘sodomites”.   Imagine then my amazement when I opened my King James Version of the bible and did not see that word at all?  Another homophobic rat – I thought!

Imagine my even greater amazement when I discovered that the Greek word “arsenokoitai” is also  bit of a mystery.  Can God not inspire these bible writers to be a bit clearer I wondered? Or does God perhaps have a plan to confound their knavish tricks?  You see, there is no surviving text where this word ‘arsenokoitai’ has been used before – so it’s very difficult to establish what it means.

St Paul – or his friends – seem to have made it up – which is surprising because the Greek language has a great many words for a great many sexual practices of all sorts.  So what did St Paul mean?  What does “arsenokoitai” mean?

The answer to that is that we just don’t know for certain …”  And that’s not special pleading – it’s just the truth as it stands at the moment.  Scholars can make intelligent guesses, but they’re still guesses.  No one is certain.  And, if you ask me, it’s a shame to divide the church and society and destroy the lives of so many people on two phrases which we do not understand.   Caution alone, if not full acceptance, should at least counsel toleration!

And then there’s Romans 1:25 – 27 which is a difficult pair of verses also difficult to understand –textually, contextually and logically – it’s the only text in the entire Bible which might just possibly talk about lesbianism – although that’s not at all clear. It could easily refer to many other things.  If these verses are about homosexuality – as many want to claim – then the logic of S Paul’s argument doesn’t work when faced with a happy stable monogamous loving gay couple, quietly getting on with going to church and living life!

But that will have to be a different sermon with a more critical reading of the text, and, believe it or not – this is not a sermon about homosexuality – it’s a sermon about division. So if you’re now feeling a little uncomfortable about where this sermon is leading, or divided – that’s probably a good sign:   Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? – said Jesus – No, I tell you, but rather division.

Because that seems to me in all these great debates which seem to divide the church as we argue about who is right and who is wrong, this is where the Church might be missing the point.   – and perhaps where the Jewish bible scholars have something to teach us.   For almost a thousand years Jewish lawyers have argued about the meaning of words in the Torah and in the fourth century they were still arguing.  They were still arguing six hundred years later –and they are still arguing today  – in fact some would say that the whole point of Torah study is to argue about what it means.  If we know what our scriptures mean and if we all agree on what they mean – where’s the life and growth in that?  Where’s the living Word of God challenging and moving us in our own generation?  Where is God speaking to us today?

And yet somehow at a very early stage Christianity got itself into doing the very opposite by defining truth and doctrine in order to exclude people who think differently. We wrote creeds and we excommunicated the people who could not say them.  We defined sacraments and we executed those who did not believe as we do.  The Jewish delight in the never-ending process of debate and argument was replaced by a need not just to search for the truth, but a need to find the truth and to possess the truth, and then to impose the truth on others.  – to find God, to possess God and then to impose our understanding of God onto others – which is a pretty shocking thing when I say it like that.

And we are still doing it today.  Bishops, archbishops and church theologians argue about texts of scripture – not with a joy in the discovery of arguing – but as each side of the debate has finally understood the plain and literal meaning of the Word of God and there is no more to be said, no more to be discovered.

Jesus said:  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Is that a curse?  Is that Jesus warning us of an evil that will come upon us – that he himself is bringing an evil upon us?  Or – might there be a mystery in this text that the division Jesus will bring is something God desires for creation.  If I call it diversity not division then it sounds good – doesn’t it Only God could delight in over 3000 species of mosquito – humans would, I think, want to make just one species – all wearing clothes, all speaking English and all being very nice to each other…..

So perhaps diversity and inclusivity – things we treasure, especially here in this cathedral and traditionally within our Anglican Church – need to be expanded in our own age to become more diverse and more inclusive so that we are not afraid of living with division between our brothers and sisters, instead of always seeking to convert the other, or seek the compromise position or seek unity.   Learning to say to the other “I think you are quite wrong – even if, in the end, they turn out to be right!

In Jesus’s striking outburst about bringing division he talks about dividing family members – father against son, daughter against mother – but Jesus never says that they cease being family– they are still– father, son, daughter, mother.   Perhaps he is pointing us to a richer more respectful way of being community where enemies yet can love one another?

Jesus told us to love our enemies – he did not tell us to be afraid of that word enemy or to pretend that people are not enemies.  Loving those we have reached a compromise with is not loving our enemy, it is reaching a compromise.

So perhaps Jesus has something to teach us as we struggle with how to share our bread with difficult and disagreeable minorities with whom we disagree and who disagree with us.

And perhaps our 2000 year old Jesus has something to teach to the world as we struggle with a new kind of world where traditional armed conflicts are no longer won but only seem to make things worse and where- as we are witnessing tragically in Egypt –  the traditional democracy where 49% of the population have to live by the decisions of the 51% are no longer working.

I do not claim to know very much about international politics and socio-economics, but I cannot help wondering if in our new global world where nations are more and more closely connected with each other in a growing world federation, that we need feel less afraid of smaller minority communities living side by side – In the past 25 years the wars which have come to an end – such as the war in Bosnia and Croatia and Serbia and the split up of the old Soviet Union and other communist countries in Europe such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia seem only to have reached a conclusion because they could divide the land into new and smaller countries and yet belong to a strong Europe.

The next phase – and one I can hardly imagine – might be to learn to live as multiple minorities within the same geographical areas – quite a challenge –  but one the Anglican Church is struggling with at this very moment. To be able to be family and yet disagree. To learn to love our enemies.

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