Touching the Untouchable – June 26

Based on Matthew 8: 1-4

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 26, 2022 *

By Scott Elliott

 

I have a college story to start us off. It gets kinda heavy, so I want to start with a light note.  It may be hard to believe, but in college I was even more handsome than I am now. Nancy and I were together way back then, and everyone in our small on campus dorm knew we were a couple– a handsome one at that.  I also played intermural sports on campus and around the dorm so it was also obvious that I was pretty good at sports. I mention this to make the point that while it really should not have mattered at all, by all appearances in my youth I looked like a stereotypical heterosexual male.  And I pretty much was one, except for one thing.  I did not know it. I could not have imagined it, but despite the reality of my heterosexual-ness,  to a gang in the dorm I was Gay because I was in plays. To them being a drama major meant homosexuality– and we complain about science education today. Whether I was Gay or not should not have mattered, but to them Gays were cultural lepers who needed to stay away from their world or be crushed. It made no sense, but homophobia never does.

At first the gang made crude comments to me in halls. Then they began yelling and banging on things outside my dorm room. Eventually they became physically violent – shoving me into walls when they passed by. I did not fight back.  I didn’t turn them in for fear things would escalate. Things escalated anyway. When Gay-bashing epithet laden death threats were put in my dorm mailbox I took counterintuitive action. Actually, I kinda snapped, judgment-wise. I saw the gang playing touch football on the dorm’s lawn and asked if I could play. I joined the non-gang side of the field.

On the first play the gang leader lined up against me and at the hike threw a series of gut punches. I took the punches.  Then at end of the play as he walked back to the huddle I asked in my booming theatre voice why he had to cheat, was he afraid he couldn’t he win against a Gay drama guy playing fair?  With the gauntlet of fairness thrown and everyone watching, the gang had to play by the rules . . .  and they lost. In part because the Gay drama guy could play touch football pretty well.  After that no one bothered me or the other male drama major in our dorm. It makes no sense but, touch football took our untouchableness away.

I was fortunate. I could have been seriously hurt by that gang in football, on campus, in the dorm,  or on the streets of town. Gay bashers are a violent lot.  So, make no mistake about it, I was lucky. Their threats were very real.  After that other drama major in the dorm left for graduate school he was severely beaten by a student who perceived him at that college as Gay – even though he was also a heterosexual.  Which should not have mattered and also evidences the ridiculousness and rabid nature of hate and homophobia. Violence against Gays (and perceived Gays) has a long and sordid history in this country that continues to this day. In the past year some religious leaders in this area, and one from another state, have gone out of their way to confront me with ugly mean hateful words for just saying or writing things along the lines of this sermon– which, ironically, are grounded in Jesus’ teachings.  I know too that some religious folks in the area perceive me as an apostasy and/or Gay and think of me as an outcast.  To this day I remain a socially constructed leper to a gang of homophobic religious people.

But the confrontations I’ve had are nothing compared to the way in which LGBTQ+ folks are abused, bullied and violently treated by such ungodly gangs. Last year in America there were “at least 57 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means” 1   A few weeks ago was the sixth anniversary of the shooting in an Orlando LGBTQ+ night club that killed 49 people injured 53. Also a few weeks ago a gang of men were arrested planning violence at a Pride Parade in Idaho. This isn’t an out-of-state issue, a recent study noted that “State laws in Ohio also fail to adequately protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment.”  Polling in the report indicated that nearly 25% of LGBTQ+ high schoolers experienced bullying in school, twice that of straight students. It doesn’t seem to get better at college. In one Ohio collage 39% of the transgender students “experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive or hostile conduct on campus.” 2  Homophobic driven violence is still happening.  Some of the awful stories of violence against LGBTQ+ make the press, but most of the time they don’t, like my recent encounters, my college story, my friend in graduate school,  and many of your stories and countless others out there.  If you don’t seem to fit into gender boxes some in our culture want to put us in, there is reason to fear.

In college being in drama for me meant being abused and threatened. It was awful, to use a phrase from last week’s sermon, it was unnerving. But I did not have to endure it long or relatively much. What if I were Gay?  How many folks in our community would think it fair to treat me even more violently and meaner than I have been for LGBTQ+ justice work? Or like I was in college? If it is not right, or unfair, or ridiculous to harass a drama major or a clergy person who opposes injustices, why isn’t it just as preposterous that loving someone of your own gender makes a person hated? Why should being made LGBTQ+ by God make anyone unacceptable and outside a norm?

Such norms are constructed by our culture, they’re certainly not God’s norms, nor are they universal cultural rules. LGBTQ+ s areconsidered acceptable elsewhere. And this is not new – or a liberal plot. In the 1950s “[a] survey of 190 societies around the world reported homosexual practices were considered acceptable behavior in approximately 70% of them.”3 In the 1950s!

Why in the 21st Century are LGBTQ+ unacceptable to some and treated as socially constructed lepers in America?  Homophobic people connected to churches across this country might answer the Bible condemns homosexuality. That’s what a number of religious elites might claim, the Dr. Dobsons and Pat Robinsons of the world, as well as not so famous hateful religious people we’ve probably all encountered.   And it is pretty interesting how obsessed they are with this claim, you might think it was at the heart of the gospels, but it’s not even in the gospels.  Jesus did not say a word about homosexuality.4

It is interesting, though, that the gospels report  Jesus opposed divorce and asserted remarriage after a divorce is adultery. 5 So why don’t we hear ranting and raving about the divorced by the religious elite who hate LGBTQ+ while thumping their Bibles. Why are there anti-LGBTQ+ bills in legislatures but no bills to keep the divorced from marrying again so the state does not sponsor Biblical adultery?  The short answer is that our culture is not ancient Israel. Our culture accepts divorce and remarriage as a part of our norm. Ancient divorce rules no longer apply. We decided such rules have no place in our culture.

And it’s not just biblical prohibitions against divorce. The Bible has numerous prohibitions meant to apply only to ancient Israel that we don’t follow. And we don’t hear LGBTQ+ haters thumping their bibles about those other prohibitions. How many of us are wearing mixed fibers today? 6 How many of us men shaved today? 7  How many of us have eaten pork or rabbit or shellfish? 8 How many have touched pigskin playing football?  If we have done these things, applying ancient Israel’s biblical standards we are unclean, like lepers. But we are not in ancient Israel, so we don’t enforce them.

Pat Robertson and James Dobson both shave, but they and their churches and many others oppose homosexuality on the basis of the same types of purported prohibitions that they violate by shaving! If shaving is not prohibited any more to them,  why is homosexuality? The Bible and ancient Israel’s laws do not make LGBTQ+ wrong in our day and age. 9  Religious people opposing LGBTQ+ are just picking and choosing verses they want to enforce on others. If they were not picking and choosing they’d be going after the divorced, the pork eaters, the clam chowder makers, the people in cotton-wool blends and all men who shave. One of the many ironies of bible thumping against LGBTQ+ is that not one word of the Bible was ever meant to condemn homosexuality in our culture. 10 Not one word.

You may be thinking of verses that have words you are sure condemn homosexuality. But, guess what? The word homosexual is not in the original versions of the Bible, or even the King James Version. 11.  See “[t]he scientific study of sexuality is barely a century old.” 12  To read the word homosexual into the Bible is anachronistic, it’s like translating “scroll” to mean “laptop computer” Ancient Israel of course knew about same gender sensuality, but not homosexuality. 13 Homosexuality relates to relationships. This is not semantics, verses in the Bible that deal with sensuality were never intended as prohibitions against loving consensual relationships, let alone made with the awareness of the laws of science.  Moreover, the texts most relied on by homophobic religious folks are specifically tied to the land in Israel. We. Are. Not. In. Israel.

Every verse relied on to claim homosexuality in America is prohibited can fairly be interpreted in a loving way to say nothing about it. 14. There is a hateful way to read it, but it is not necessary (or Christ like to do so). Many of the prohibitions in Bible were created for reasons that existed in ancient Israel, which are not applicable to America. Which is why you don’t hear Dr. Dobson, Pat Robertson and other homophobic Christians advocating that all Americans must live by the verses that are anti-shaving, anti-pork eating, anti-clam chowder, anti-mixed fibers and anti-divorce. The same reason there’s no reason to apply those verses, is why there is no reason to apply purported anti-homosexual texts from ancient Israel in America.

If all that was not enough to do away with homophobia for church goers, in the story we heard today from Matthew 8 (v 2-4) Jesus models how his followers should deal with those the culture names and oppresses as unclean. A leper, who was outcast by the social constructs and scriptures of ancient Israel, told Jesus “‘[I]f you choose you can make me clean.’” Jesus’ response was to stretch out his hand, touch the outcast and state authoritatively “‘I do choose. Be made clean.’” Jesus ignores the social constructs of his day – and scriptural prohibitions against lepers. Jesus does this by recognizing and claiming the culturally unclean as clean. He touches the untouchables and declares them touchable. That’s powerful healing for outcasts.   This should not surprise us. Jesus taught us that loving God and others out ranks every other commandment. All of them. Jesus touches the untouchable in violation of norms and scripture because loving others requires that! For Jesus,  Love must wash away any and all constructs that make another unclean, whether a person is a leper literally or figuratively. No one is unclean. All are goodly and Godly made.

 We are called to do as Jesus did, not just hear his stories and praise him. To do as Jesus did includes affirmatively taking away social constructs that make people outcasts. To follow Jesus, we need to choose to make the culturally unclean clean. We need to touch the untouchables and declare them touchable.  We need to reject norms that outcast others and we need to go out of the way to embrace those who are outcast by any part of the culture.  Loving our neighbor includes declaring our culture’s unclean clean and welcoming them just as they are fully and equally into the community of God.

 This is Christ’s community not the culture’s.  Jesus himself calls us to such a daring reaching out, welcoming and open community. The Book of Acts evidences the early church did just that when an Ethiopia Eunuch, an LGBTQ+ person, was sought out and invited and welcomed into the church. The Book of Acts even notes that God codified this with a command to Peter that no one is to be called profane or unclean.  If churches can welcome Pat Robertson and James Dobson who shave; if churches can welcome Donald Trump and others who’ve been  divorced and remarried; if churches can welcome theatre people  like me; then churches can welcome all the other lepers our culture creates – including every LGBTQ+ person (each of whom is goodly and Godly made).

As Pride Month comes to a close I wanted to make it clear that the radical open and affirming nature of this church is very Jesus like, very Christian and has Biblical anchors …  and Christ calls us to it. No matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here, as a goodly and Godly made person. And you are loved and matter much.  AMEN.

END NOTES

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008

1 https://www.hrc.org/resources/fatal-violence-against-the-transgender-and-gender-non-conforming-community-in-2021

2 https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/lgbt-stigma-discrim-oh/

3 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (2001-05) (“homosexuality”) online edition at www.bartleby.com/65/ho/homosexu.html.

4 Goss, Queering Christ, Cleveland, Pilgrim Press (2002),197.

5 Mark 10:10-12.

6 Leviticus 19:19.

7 Leviticus 19:27.

8 Leviticus 11:6, 7, 10-12.

9 Cf., Goss, 204; Wilchins, 31.

10 Goss, 186-203; see also,  Helminiak, Daniel, What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, San Francisco: Alamo Square Press, (1994), 13, 14.

11 Boswell, 114.

12 Helminiak, 32.

13 Ibid., 33.

14 All seven texts usually to claim homosexuality in America is prohibited can be read to not prohibit it. Here is just a very quick overview of interpretations that contradict those verses being used as anti-homosexual. Let’s begin with Leviticus 18(22) and 20 (13) which prohibit a man to “lie with a male as with a woman.” Of course, literally read only “to lie “is at issue, no word of sex is mentioned. Even if we interpret “lie” as referring to sexual matters both chapters 18 and 20 assert the laws are intended to apply only in Israel to Israelites. (Lev. 18:2-3; 20:2)) We are not in Israel and we are not Israelites. The laws are tied to the land not to us and so they were never intended for application in our nation.

Next we have the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:1-27)where we are told the town’s men want “to know” the messengers Lot’s taken in. A literal reading of “to know” does not mean sex. Even interpreting the text to refer to sex does not help since that makes the story about non-consensual sexual assault, not loving relations. The same can be said for the lesser-known story in Judges 19 (22-30) where men wanted “to know” a foreigner, but attacked and killed his concubine. These stories were intended to condemn sexual assault, not prohibit consensual relations of any type.

That’s it for the Old Testament, on to the New.  Romans 1:26-27 is used to attack both Gays and Lesbians. But verse 26 can be read to be about heterosexual women choosing to have relations with men in ways that Paul thought were unnatural. And verse 27 can be read to criticize rich males imposing non-consensual acts on male subordinates.

The last verses that supposedly condemn homosexuality are vice lists found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10 where focus is placed on the terms “male prostitutes’ in 1 Corinthians and “sodomites” in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. But those terms are translations made through a modern homophobic lens. The King James Version does not use “male prostitutes,” it uses the word  “effeminate.” The King James Version does not use “sodomite,” it uses  the curious phrase “abusers of themselves with mankind.”  Paul wrote in Greek. The Greek word translated as “male prostitute” is malakas which means “softy.” The Greek word translated as “sodomite” is arseno-koites – a strange term some scholars think refers to the men exploiting others through non-consensual acts– in truth no one knows what it means making it unfair to claim it means homosexuality.

So, there you are fair readings of all seven purportedly anti-homosexual verses indicating none of them were intended to prohibit homosexuality in America in the twenty-first century.

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