Sermon – 2 July 2006

If you read a newspaper printed in England, or listen to the news from the BBC, you cannot be unaware that there is a huge row going on in the worldwide Anglican Church over the appointment of Bishop Gene Robinson in the USA and the events at the recent General Convention of the American Episcopal Church. If is good to welcome friends from that church here this morning. We’ve been praying for you over the last couple of weeks.

Issues of human sexuality have been simmering just below the surface for quite some time. This week they seem to have come to the boil – open warfare seems to have broken out. Bishops are fulminating and ex-communicating one another left, right and centre. The papers and the news broadcasts are full of it –  everyone loves a row, don’t they?


This morning, I am not going to preach a sermon denouncing the bigotry that is being displayed in the church by bishops who should know better. I believe that ultimately making mock of tyrants is our chief weapon against corruption and abuse of power, whether we find it in civil life or sitting on a bench in the House of Lords wearing purple. However, I am not going to make mock of the hierarchy of the Church of England in my sermon this morning, however tempting that might be.

Rather, I am going to preach on one of the bible passages which comes up in our lectionary today – the story of David’s grief for Jonathan and Jonathan’s father Saul.

It is instructive to look at this passage, at this time, rather carefully indeed.

For what I want to do this morning is illustrate some of the reasons why this huge row has broken out in the church and say just a little bit about why this issue has become a fault-line in the Anglican communion.

The argument which is so violently raging about homosexuality in so very many quarters of the church is basically one about the way in which we read the bible.

It is a debate between those who would claim that the bible can be read literally as God’s word to his people today and those who want to read God’s word and interpret it amongst God’s diverse people.

The first might seem quite compelling – offering immediate answers to how we should live – usually justified with proof texts which can show us, and give us a definitive answers how we should live and move and behave. The second is more nuanced and is a little harder for it means taking the bible a good deal more seriously.

Let me illustrate this using the very controversy that we face at the moment over the question of whether an honest gay man can be ordained as a bishop. (there have, after all been plenty of gay bishops before him).

Immediately, the biblicists will announce that it is wrong because the bible says so. And they can justify it clearly with texts from Leviticus and from Romans – the argument is clear, they say – there is proof positive in the bible that homosexuality is wrong. The bible says so.

And then along comes a liberal and tries to argue with this by throwing out the example of David and Jonathan which we have this morning. Were they, after all not a same sex-couple. Were they not two men in biblical times who loved one another with a passion that rings down through the ages? Does David’s wailing grief not tell the real story.

And there are other proof texts that can get hurled in from either side.

Does this get us anywhere? Does this tell us how to live?

If the Leviticus condemns gay relationships, then I have news for you – it condemns the eating of whelks or bacon sandwiches with just as much force.

And if Paul takes an anti gay stance (something which can be questioned in itself), so too does he take a stance against women appearing without hats or speaking in public discourse.

By and large, the church, by which I mean ordinary people who come to church, not the hierarchy, the church has come to terms with modern life by using common sense and not by being brainwashed into biblicist bigotry. And that has meant thinking responsibly about all kinds of things that the bible talks about – not just silly questions such as whether you can eat whelks or not (for whelks are not kosher) but real questions –

·       can human beings own slaves? As it says you can in the bible?

·       Is divorce forbidden in all circumstances?

·       Should women and men be treated equally before the law?

·       Is contraception an option for Christians?

Even the most hard-line Bible-abusing preachers have made some accommodation on these questions.

God’s gifts to us include the divine gift of common sense.

So is the bible relevant? Yes, of course it is. My sadness is that it is often the most extreme kinds of religious people who want to study the biblical texts and look into the bible for words which will prop up their prejudices. But the moral minority cannot be allowed to steal the bible from the rest of us.

God’s majority – God’s diverse people. God’s many people must claim for themselves the right to read the word of God in their own context.

They too, thank God, will find much for their comfort.

Take this text about David and Jonathan. How shall we read it in our own context. Is this about gay relationships or isn’t it.

Well the answer is not that simple though it is clear that these two warriors loved one another very deeply.

What gives the game away to me is not the description of their love, but the effect that their love had on Saul, Jonathan’s father. He responded to David and Jonathan with blind, violent rage. His rage seems all too familiar. It seems all too familiar in a world where gay teenagers are more likely to try to harm themselves. More likely to commit suicide. More likely to be homeless. More likely to be thrown out of the family home because Saul just cannot cope with them.

David and Jonathan pose many questions to us. They continue to pose many questions to me when I meet them in the course of my work as a priest in God’s church.

It seems to me that David and Jonathan these days are to be encouraged to do the best they can to live lives of faithfulness, compassion and love. Injunctions which fall just as readily on everyone else.

And Saul. Saul is the one who needs our prayers. For he is unable to cope with human life and he lashes out with violence and rage.

Saul lives on. His violence and condemnation are sadly, alive and well in society and even more uncomfortably in the hierarchy of God’s church. [And probably in every hierarchy that there ever was].

Saul lives on, and his rage has been turned on Gene Robinson, Jeffrey John and upon countless others in the church trying to live lives worth living responding to Jesus’s call – “Come, follow me”.

David wept for his friend Jonathan. And he wept for his friend’s father who had tried to kill him.

The time has come in the church when we must pray alongside David and Jonathan and go on lamenting and praying for Saul.

I know that some of you would prefer not to read these kinds of debates in the newspapers, never mind have the Provost raise them on a Sunday morning. Yet you know what happens when good people bury their heads in the sand. You know what happens when good people choose not to know, and choose not to care. When good people turn away and walk by on the other side of the road, people get very hurt indeed.

Talking of walking on the other side of the road… last night I heard th
e beat, beat, beat of angry drumming and the toot, toot, toot of the fifes. An Orange Walk was passing by my window reminding me that not everything about Glasgow is great and glorious. My response was to slip on my shoes and hurry along to St Columba’s, our Roman Catholic neighbours. I arrived in time to join in their Vigil Mass and to share the peace with them.

I am sure, and I hope that you are thinking that life would be a lot easier if people just got on with one another. You are probably thinking that the world would be better if only people were nice to one another.

And that is true. Charity, care and compassion are pathways in this world’s labyrinth which lead us surely and certainly back to God.

Back to the God who made us each in the Divine image.

Made us carefully and lovingly.

Precious, special and named and holy.

And each one alight with the spirit. And each one blessed with God’s grace. And each one, David and Jonathan and even angry Saul are included in the circle of God’s love.



  1. “Made us carefully and lovingly.”

    – I misread this as “make us careful and loving”. 🙂

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here with many things.

    I’m sadly ignorant of what’s going on in America (no time for news ever), but if I may don my angry young man hat, then the argument you make about the Levitical code not being equally applied is very relevant, and the only reason we so penalise Gene Robertson is because, unlike so many others, he’s not willing to lie and is open about himself.

    When will we stop breeding a church of bigots who only know how to only literally apply only half of ‘the Law’, half of the time.

    I wish I knew more about the issues, but I fear I would climb back on my gay rights soapbox and ruin any chance I would ever have of doing anything interesting in my working life where it doesn’t always help to be outspoken when you might be looking for security vetting.

  2. Andrew says

    Sermon 2nd July ’06

         Sound working analysis. Instant simplistic answers drawn from Bible or anywhere else never stand muster. We humans are called to follow the Spirit; trouble is we tend to react like a shoal of fish (or a flock of sheep!) inasmuch as at any given time and place we see different insights, never the full picture! In the end we’ll get there… but meantime we should patiently bear with and listen to each other; Jesus specifically prayed we should be at one.

          All are included within His flock, and beloved by Him, without exception.  

  3. Lesley says

    Orange Walk
    The Orange Walk is to signify that Northern Ireland will not lie down and accept an Irish Catholic rule. I agree fully that everyone should show tolerance, but the Irish Catholics historically do not (i.e. refusing abortion to a raped 15 year-old, Magdalene laundries etc). Northern Ireland has a right to keep its religion and British government, and I understand why they would wish to. Peace is a good thing, but to maintain something which you believe in sometimes it is necessary to fight for it.

  4. Mysterious Stranger says

    A bit of tomgue in cheek I Found on the web.Seemed to fit here.

    Ten questions for the religious right

    1) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

    2) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

    3) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

    4) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

    5) I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

    6) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an Abomination (Lev 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. (After all, have you seen what whole shellfish look like?) Can you settle this?

    7) Lev 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

    8) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19:27. How should they die?

    9) I know from Lev 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

    10) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24:10-16) Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

Speak Your Mind