I was blessed today to join in a conference about LGBT concerns at the United Church of Chapel Hill.
Hearing people’s stories and experiences reminds me of the many same-gender loving and transgendered individuals God has blessed me to know in my own life and in my ministry.
During the conference, one participant who was very excited about her own church’s desire to support LGBT people in their life, asked the very pressing question — “Where, from the Bible, do we get our support for same-gender couples?” That question reminded me of this sermon I preached some years ago, while pastoring a church in Fayetteville, NC, the town that serves Fort Bragg, NC, just a little before the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, where I look at Jesus’ response to a same-gender loving man.
I include this message as my Lenten Study on the Life of Jesus this week. I hope it blesses you with a deeper vision of Jesus’ love for all, and most of all the place Jesus has for you.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here,
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Our Gospel reading today comes from Luke 7
1 After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum. 2 A certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and at the point of death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and save his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for you to do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue for us.”
6 Jesus went with them. When he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. 7 Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you; but say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.
9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.” 10 Those who were sent, returning to the house, found that the servant who had been sick was well.
These are the words of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I want to begin my sermon today by reading an excerpt of a story about a young man named Josh Melo, taken from http://www.suicide.org/memorials/joshua-melo.html
“I had to cut my son down from the tree,” said John Melo, father of 15-year-old Joshua Melo, who died by suicide after being relentlessly bullied because some students thought that he was gay. “I told the kids at the funeral that if you don’t get together and confront the bullies, it will be your parents cutting you down. You guys have to stick together, stand up to the bullies, take away their power and they will back down. If you guys don’t do it, the system won’t.”
“All I could hear was John’s screams,” said Maria Melo, Joshua’s mother.”He came in like a madman. Joshua was already so stiff. John couldn’t pull him down. He was cold and John was hugging him. I started to scream.”
“[After Joshua was cut down from the tree], I just went outside and hugged him…I just hugged him,” Maria said. “I told the coroner that I needed time to hug and kiss Joshua before they took him away.”
John has since removed the tree. “The tree is already gone,” said Maria. “John cut it down and burned it.”
Joshua Melo was a sensitive, shy, polite, caring, talented, and intelligent 15-year-old 10th grader who attended Strathroy District Collegiate Institute in Strathroy, Ontario, Canada.
Joshua hanged himself on November 26, 2004; he was suffering from severe depression after enduring endless bullying because some bullies at the school believed that he was gay.
“Last Friday, Joshua couldn’t take it anymore and took his own life,” said John Melo. “Something went really bad and he just snapped. He couldn’t take it anymore. Joshua was the type of boy to bottle everything up inside and this had been going on for a long time…It’s more than heartbreaking.”
“He had been harassed daily,” said John. “He had been subjected to constant homophobic slurs.”
“Joshua couldn’t walk down the hall without someone laughing and teasing him,” said one student.
“It’s like they were trying to torture him,” said another student.
“This situation makes me sick, real sick,” said another student. “Joshua was a good guy. Many things have to change at our school. How could this have happened? How? This is horrible, and I think that the people who did this to Josh should be in jail. I am so sad about all of this.”
And another student said: “They hated Joshua because they said he was gay, so they called him every ‘gay hate name’ that they could. It just didn’t stop. They never left him alone. And now I know they are happy he’s dead.”
Last Saturday night Pastor Kat and I were blessed to represent our church and our community as the only two pastors at Fayetteville, NC’s Equality NC gathering, in support of civil rights for all Americans. While there, the hosts of the event shared equally chilling tales from towns and neighborhoods in our own state in which young men and women felt so bullied and put down based on the fact their classmates – and, at times, their churches – thought they were gay that they too saw ending their own life their only options. Many of these young teens – some who were young and gay, some just young and misunderstood – actually reached out for help from their schools, their families, and their churches and only found equally heart-breaking judgment. In fact, studies have shown about one out of four gay teenagers attempt to take their own life because of the rejection at the hands of family, friends, and faith leaders.
I want to suggest to you that the experience of this centurion, who experiences Jesus healing his “servant who was dear to him”, is an experience that speaks volumes to all people who have felt like outcasts, especially to gay and lesbian people.
Who was this centurion? What was his experience of Jesus, and why do I say it speaks to all outcasts, especially those made to feel like outcasts because of their sexuality?
I feel this centurion’s experience of Jesus speaks directly to the experience of those who feel like outcasts, especially gay and lesbian people, because despite his power and wealth this centurion was in many ways the ultimate outcast; because despite the centurion feeling he could not approach God due to being the sort of outcast he was, Jesus shows him that he is no outcast to God because God honors and accepts the fact that the centurion is reaching out to God even though no-one else does; and finally Jesus’ responses teach the centurion and us that being an outcast, even for being gay, cannot keep you from becoming a shining example of faith to others.
At first glance, without knowing the back-story to this encounter, we can wonder “how in the world could this centurion be an outcast?” After all, he has power – the full power of the Roman empire behind him. After all, he has wealth from Roman taxes in his pockets. After all, when he speaks and acts, people have to listen. And after all, doesn’t even the leader of the synagogue, who is a leader in the Jewish community, even respect him.
But often there is more to a person than the world sees, and someone who presents themselves as a happy smiling face, as a good straight-laced guy, whom the world looks at as “having it good”, isn’t. The centurion is in fact a stranger in a strange land, an outcast in Israel. To begin with the centurion was the enemy and unwelcome among Jesus’ people. The centurion was the soldier for the Romans, a foreign power that the people of Israel and Capernaum hated. No doubt he heard cursing and insults muttered under the breath on every street he marched by local people, even though he knew he was just doing his job, defending his country. Have any of you ever gotten the message from those around you that “your type” is unwelcome in their neighborhood, their job, their community because of your background – whether the place you were born, the color of your skin, your accent, or the person you loved? I know many who have, including gay people, and feel this soldier’s experience speaks clearly to that.
What is more, he was outcast from his own faith. The fact that this Roman soldier was so well-spoken of by the local synagogue leader but yet was not accepted into the synagogue itself shows that he was in a group of people known as “God-fearers”. What was a God-fearer?
A God-fearer was an outcast.
God-fearers were individuals who had met Jewish people, who worshiped the God of the Bible, and become convinced the God of the Bible was real. They had read its pages and seen its faith lived out. They had become convinced that there was no God but the Creator of the universe, the one who thundered out the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. This soldier had come to believe in and worship the God of the Bible, then, as a God-fearer.
But a God-fearer was also an outcast. A God-fearer was one who had come to worship the God of the Bible, had tried to join the people of the Bible – at this point, the Jewish people – and been told your kind are not fully welcome here. These were people who, for as many reasons as there are laws in the Old Testament, had been told they were not fit to join the faith of the Good Book. Sometimes it was because they would not have the surgery of circumcision, sometimes it was because they had a job that got them in touch with people who made them too unclean to go to the temple. And there were other reasons I will get to in a minute. But being a God-fearer, someone the synagogue leader respected and spoke up for, but also said “he is not a member here”, meant that this soldier when he tried to join the faith of Scripture, the faith of Israel, had been told “your type isn’t fully welcome here”. So even in the realm of faith, when he opened his life to God, he was told he was not quite good enough to belong. He was an outcast.
Have you, friend, ever been told your kind was not good enough to join the faith of the Bible? I have known people who were told because they were divorced, because they were married to someone of a different race, because they were poor or homeless, and yes because they were gay that the faith of Scripture had no place for them. Oh, how the centurion’s experience speaks to us today!
But there is something else about the centurion, something theologians have been trying to push into the closet for centuries, but now modern scholarship has begun to uncover: the centurion’s lover was a man.
Isn’t it interesting how carefully worded the description for his sick friend is placed in our modern translations: a “ certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him”. But even there the wording is clear: his dear servant, his dear companion.
You see in the Roman world it was outlawed from about 10 years before Jesus’ birth til about 150 AD for a Roman soldier to marry and have a wife and family while in the service. The reason? Because than he would be divided and afraid of fighting on the battlefield.
But there was a way around this rule. Soldiers were allowed to carry their personal slaves or servants with them wherever they went. These kept up their homes, provided their meals, and provided what else was needed for their “master” but if they had any children, the army did not recognize them as the soldier’s and so no money needed to be set aside for them; and no apportionment of money could be justified for any “family” that was produced if their marriages were recognized. So their expenses had to come out of the soldier’s own income.
So a man who wanted a wife would convince the woman he loved to get a job as his servant, and she would become his entemous doulah, his maid-servant who was dear to him”. And everyone with a * wink wink * and a nod would acknowledge that she was his lover with that phrase.
But some soldiers – and many in fact – would go another route. These, like Alexander the Great before them, were not interested in wives, but in – for lack of a better phrase – husbands. And what would they do? Well they would convince the man they fell in love with to become their man-servant. And he would be called theirentemous doulos, their man-servant, or sometimes just “servant who was dear to him”.
You see this phrase in Luke was a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that the man who was sick and near death was in fact this soldier’s male lover. That phrase, together with the Greek phrase pais or “beloved boy”, was known by all Greek-speakers to be like the phrase “partner” in American society. Certainly it can mean someone you work with in business. But it also can clearly mean someone you love, you share your life with, that is for all intents and purposes your spouse.
The fact this was no mere servant but this soldier’s beloved, his life-partner, the man who had his heart, is made even more clear in the Greek of Matthew 8, which calls this man not his doulos or servant but his pais, or “the boy he loves” which can literally be translated “boy-friend”. Pais would have been understood by anyone who had to been to Greece as a term used for man’s long-term male romantic partner.
I think personally this relationship may very well have been the reason the leader of the synagogue who readily admits what a good man this soldier was, how much he loved God, and did in the community, could not in good conscience let the soldier move from being a God-fearer, still an outcast in the house of God, to a full member of the synagogue. “Sure, centurion, you paid to build a synagogue, sure you help the poor and needy, sure you read your Bible and pray, but not only are you a different race and a foreigner, but you are dating a man? If I let you in, who knows what my synagogue members will do?”
So you see now that this man’s experience of Jesus speaks directly to the situation these young men and women I spoke of earlier have had, speaks directly to all outcasts, and speaks pointedly to other gay and lesbian men and women in all ages and times.
What did this experience teach us? What can a real experience with the living Jesus speak to us, especially those of us who feel like outcasts cause of our background, our race, or the person we love?
The centurion’s experience of Jesus, I believe demonstrated to him that though in the eyes of the world he was an outcast, he was fully and completely accepted by God because God saw his heart was open to God.
To me it looks like the centurion actually had begun to begin the lies the world had thrown at him, the lie that he was somehow less than other people because of his race, because of his background, because he loved a man and not a woman. I say this because the Gospel of Luke makes it clear that even though Matthew says the centurion begged Jesus, the centurion did not actually do it in person. No, he did not feel worthy enough to go and approach Jesus, the Son of God, and ask for help – let alone for his life-time male lover. I have been told all my life what a shame it is to be who I am; I must be shameful he must have thought. No, he doesn’t even approach Jesus himself but has others go to Jesus for him. He doesn’t feel worthy to talk to Jesus for himself.
How shocking it must have been for him that Jesus said immediately when he saw the love this man had for his life-partner, when he saw the faith this man had not only in God but in Jesus as God’s Son, that he would come into his house. But, wait, the man must have said to himself, how can the Son of God come into my house? Though I love and long for God, I have been told all this time I don’t deserve to be fully a part of his family because of who I am and who I love.
Now, suddenly, he finds himself loved, accepted, and embraced by God not as from a distance, but as God’s own beloved child in whom God was well-pleased. And Jesus not only says this in words but demonstrates it by healing the man this man loves by the power of God.
You know for years this man had kept his faith in God, even though he had been told he was not acceptable and probably told his love was dirty. This man’s faith reminds me of the lyrics of a song by Boyzone I heard one year at a Pride event where I was ministering. Listen with me to this song for a moment.
I believe, deep in his heart, this man chose even in the face of rejection by the people of God, to keep to his faith in God because like the singers of Boyzone, he knew if what he heard was true – if God really heard his prayers, one day he would hear from God that it didn’t matter what people said, and who attacked, that God’s love for him was true and would last.
And now, in a moment, Jesus had declared it and he knew in God’s eyes he was fully accepted.
Friends I believe that this is what the God revealed in Jesus is saying to you, to me, to all the struggling children told because they are gay, because they are different, because they are “sissy” or “tomboys” or whatever that they are not good enough. God is saying yes every prayer will be answered, yes every tear heard, and if you can just listen you will hear it doesn’t matter how they answer, it doesn’t matter how they attack, my love for you is true. You – just as you are, not as others wish you to be – you, just as you are, are my Beloved Child and in you I am well-pleased.
Friend, if we are truly his Body, isn’t that message – and not the message of rejection, the message that leads young men and women to think the noose and not the altar of God is the place to find freedom – what we need to tell those young people? And if we don’t, if we reject them, do we not also have their blood on our hands?
Finally, I want you to notice that not only does he discover that God accepts this centurion and his love as God’s very own – not despite his differences, but even including them – but actually discovers that he can become an example of faith to others. A part of why he and his boy-friend aren’t fully welcomed by the synagogue and kept at a distance is the same reason gay couples often are told “you can’t be a member of the church”, because being a member means you can be a leader. And being a leader means being an example of faith. Culturally, this man’s life was “too wrong”, “too different”, for him to be an example to anybody in the eyes of that culture. After all, who would want a foreigner, a person of a different race, a gay man in the military, to be their example of faith?
Jesus has the perfect opportunity to declare for all time that being gay is wrong, horrible, and sinful here if he felt that way. In other accounts of healing, if someone is sinning Jesus turns to the person and says “go and sin no more”. If this man had been sinning by loving who he did, Jesus would have said that to him. He doesn’t. Instead of doing that in this passage, Jesus actually holds this man up as an example that the “good upstanding Bible-believing” people who have excluded him need to imitate. Notice how Jesus says … “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.” I like how Matthew renders Jesus’ words in His account of the same events in Matthew 8:10-11– ““Most assuredly I tell you, I haven’t found so great a faith, not even in Israel.I tell you that many will come from the east and the west, and will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven “
You see Jesus holds this centurion up as an example of faith and even goes so far to say this man proves what Jesus has been saying all along: that God’s love isn’t limited to “Israel”, to people who fit the picture of good, religious, Bible-believing folks. No people from all over – from East and West – have a place at God’s table and, if they reach out to God, will be welcomed.
Jesus’ words to this gay soldier suggest that what makes you different can be not a hindrance, but something holy. Those very things others put down in you, if you give them over to God, can be a blessing to others. And who you love can become a holy thing. Yes, you can be a gay saint. Yes, you can be not just a soldier but a Christian soldier. And yes God can use the fact of you being who society calls “the wrong race,” “the foreigner,” “the outcast”as a blessing. You are no mistake – God does not create any garbage. You, just as you are, are God’s beloved child in whom God is well-pleased.