God's Idea

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Shortly after today’s service, downtown is going to erupt in joy and celebration as the annual Pride Parade gets under way. Some of us will be there as part of the United Church contingent. Last year, clergy and lay people from the UCC held a giant pride flag, and we walked down Yonge Street for hours – there is a lot of stopping and starting. Here’s what it looked like:

 I must admit, I did not know what to expect. I had attended Pride parades before as a spectator, but never as a participant. I wore my clerical collar, something I rarely do here, but I often do at demonstrations. And what I remember most is all the young queer people who wanted to high five me. Over and over again, they were delighted that a Christian minister was standing up for them. There were people who insisted on taking selfies with the Christian minister. For them - the lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans people, the asexual - having Christians come out as affirming is a revelation, something truly worth cheering about. So, I am so glad that we get to do this again today, and I hope some of you will join us.   

The reason the crowds were happy to see Christians in the parade is that we have been their main enemy for centuries. Christians have argued that the Bible states there is only one kind of legitimate sexuality - heterosexuality. For centuries, queer sexuality and gender in all its forms has been presented as an abomination by Christians. This, despite the fact that there have been gay and lesbian people in every boarding school, in every monastery, in every village and city, in every generation.  Nonetheless, Christian doctrine has long held that God only condones straight sexuality, and gender defined as male and female.    Fortunately, In the past few decades, this has changed. This month, over 800 clergy from the United Church, The Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, and many other denominations signed a petition celebrating all forms of sexuality and gender.   

The petition was signed by clergy from coast to coast, from every province, denouncing religious hatred of queer people. I have been producing a video to spread the same message, which we will see later in the service.    

We did this because lately, there has been a drive by Christian fundamentalists to condemn any kind of sexuality or gender that doesn’t fit the narrow definition of straight male-female relations. In many American states, books that mention gay sexuality in any way are being banned in schools and classrooms. These conservatives often quote the Bible in support of their views.   

They point to seven passages in the Bible which appear to condemn homosexuality, only a few specifically.[1]    However, if we are being consistent about this, we should remember there are twice as many passages that condemn usury, which is loaning money with interest. This practice is now the foundation of the international economy, yet we don’t hear fundamentalists demanding that we shut down the entire banking system because it is unBiblical.   

There are also 42 passages that explicitly condemn adultery among straight people, yet, here, too, there is no movement to abolish straight sexuality to solve the problem.

So how did Christians decide that queer sexuality should be singled out for condemnation, even though it is mentioned less often than charging interest or adultery? It may be helpful to think of Christianity as not one religion, but two. The first is a religion devoted to Christ’s values, teaching and salvational acts. The second religion within Christianity promotes and protects a patriarchal view of the family. This model of the family holds that men should be in charge of their families, that women should be attractive and available to men, and that women’s most important role is in the home, preferably as a mother. In this model, same sex relations are condemned since they have no role in reproduction of the straight male led family.   

This idea that men should be in charge of families was alive and well before Christianity came along - the Romans and Greeks lived by it. Judaism was also very patriarchal. So, when Christianity came along, it was quickly infiltrated by this patriarchal belief system. We can see Paul bringing it in his letters, where he condemns homosexuality (1 Corinthians 6:9–10), tells women to be quiet in church (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36) , and he tells women to obey  their husbands (Ephesians 5:22) , as they obey the Lord. This eventually became common sense among Christians - Christianity promotes heterosexuality and the idea that men should be in charge. To this day, Roman Catholicism won’t allow women to preach or become priests. Many Protestant denominations do this, too.   

 Two weeks ago, America’s biggest Protestant denomination [2], the Southern Baptists, voted not that no women should be allowed to preach in their churches. [3]  

 But there is a big problem with this idea that Christianity is a champion of patriarchal family values. The problem is that God appears to have other ideas. When Jesus talks about families, he doesn’t play by these rules. He usually appears as a critic of this kind of family, rather than its champion. Jesus usually advises people to leave it as soon as you grow up, and don’t look back.   

We see this when Jesus is walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, looking for disciples. He sees James and John in a fishing boat with their father. Jesus calls them to follow him, and they do, leaving their father and their fishing business behind. This might ruin the family business, but Jesus isn’t worried about it. (Matthew 4:21-22).

In Luke, Jesus is even more direct about his attitude towards families:    Slide: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26).   

Jesus is calling for the liberation and flourishing of individuals, and He knows that families can be stuck in the past and hold you back. His followers may have thought a woman’s place was in the home, but Jesus didn’t see it that way.  He allowed single women like Mary Magdalene to travel with him from town to town. In a patriarchal family, men are expected to keep women under their control, and so an adulterous woman is the biggest threat of all.

 In John’s Gospel, an adulterous woman is brought before Jesus by the local faith leaders, and they want to stone her to death. Jesus saves her life by asking which of these men is without sin. He takes the side of the adulterous woman, the worst threat of all to men’s control of the family. (John 7:53-8:11)  

As much as the Bible is presented as the textbook for family values, if you actually listen to what Jesus says and does, he is more interested in helping people to flourish than defending this oppressive family system. It appears God has a different idea about families than we have been taught by society, by culture, even by church.  

We can see more proof of that in today’s scripture passage. It takes place after Jesus has been resurrected and has gone back to Heaven. The Holy Spirit drives Philip to go meet a man riding in a chariot reading Isaiah, and he ends up baptizing this person.   This is a very detailed baptism story. On the day of Pentecost, 3000 people were baptized (Acts 2:41), but we don’t know anything about those people. Today’s episode is the first time in the Book of Acts that we hear in detail about a person who was baptized. 

Of all the thousands of baptisms that have taken place already at this point in Christianity’s early history, it is this one that the Spirit wants us to know about in detail.  

The person who is being baptized is very interesting indeed. We’re told he is from Ethiopia - not the country as we know it, but a region of the southern Nile in Africa in what is now Northern Sudan. It was populated by Black Africans then as it is now. We are also told this person is powerful - the treasurer for this country’s African queen. And, most germane to the question of family values, we are told he is a eunuch. That is, this person’s testicles have been removed so that there will be no chance that the queen may have sex or children with this person.[4]

In modern terms, this individual is queer:  gender non-conforming, a person who has had sex re-assignment surgery. He, or They, are no longer the same gender as their gender at birth.  in today’s terms, we would say they are no longer cis-gendered, a term Elon Musk banned from Twitter this week.[5]

This eunuch, is not someone who fits into the patriarchal view of the family where men are men and women are women. Yet it is this person of colour, who is neither classically male nor female, who is queer, it is this person that the Holy Spirit wants us to meet. The Holy Spirit wants us to know that God loves them, accepts them, and wants them to be baptized. And the Spirit insists that this story should be immortalized in the Bible.   

The scripture passage keeps telling us that the Holy Spirit is in charge of this whole event. An angel tells Phillip to go down to Gaza. The Holy Spirit tells Phillip to go up to the chariot and talk to the person inside. The Holy Spirit tells Philip to leave once the baptism is done. This may be the writer’s way of saying, “I know this story is strange, but the Spirit wants me to tell it?” This is an episode that reminds us that we are asked to worship God, not a narrow view of human families and gender. We need to have the courage to look at our scriptures clearly and go where the spirit sends us, even if it takes us far away from the traditional family values we were taught as children, by our parents and even by our church.  

Today we baptized a little girl who has her whole life ahead of her. Let us hope and pray that when she grows up, no one will be banning books or denying the full range of human sexuality and gender. Let us hope that she can say with a smile on her face that she was baptized on Pride Sunday. Let us hope that she will tell friends that she was baptized in a church where people of all genders and sexualities are loved and valued for who they are. That she was baptized among people who want her to grow up to be whoever she wants to be. And that we embrace her and all others, as a precious child of God, made in God’s image.