Year B: Deuteronomy 4, 1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-end; Mark 7: 1-8, 14, 21-23.
I have been pursued by this weeks Gospel reading, not just in my usual preparations for this sermon but also because it came up in the cycle of readings for Morning Prayer this week.
Returning again and again Jesus’ strong teaching not only on the rejection of the practices of Jewish ritual purity, but also his focus on personal holiness, has drawn my thinking through this week to the Church’s ongoing debates on the question of human sexuality.
As many of you will know I was one of the diocesan delegates at the North Region Shared Conversation on Issues in Scripture, Mission, and Human Sexuality in June. I promised when I returned that I would share some of my thoughts on these conversations with you. The continual prompting of today’s Gospel seems to me to be the Holy Spirit suggesting that now is as good a time as any.
There is not enough time to discuss the conference with you all in great detail but I want to reflect on two central aspects of it now.
The first was its focus on scripture.
The Church’s response to human sexuality, and particularly to same-sex relationships, always pivots back to questions of scripture.
The tension between our modern experience of same-sex relationships and scripture’s treatment of same-sex relationships, means that the Church’s response is not simply a pastoral or ethical one, but a response which goes to the heart of how we use, read, and wrestle with the words of scripture.
Conservative Evangelicals, who are certain that the Bible is clear on the wrongness of same-sex relations, point again and again to those passages in the Levitical Law, and then in St Paul, which appear to forbid same-sex relations.
Liberals then counter that there are plenty of things in the Levitical Law, and in Paul’s teaching – such as food laws and whether women should cover their heads in Church – which we now ignore. To put it bluntly: why do we get hung up on same-sex relations when we all happily eat bacon and lobster?
The Conservative Evangelical response to this takes us to today’s Gospel.
Jesus does not say anything about same-sex relations. However, Conservative Evangelicals argue that Jesus is clear in abolishing the ritual food laws, whilst keeping in place the Levitical laws on personal conduct.
Listen…understand [Jesus says]: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.
This is one reading of this passage.
In my opinion, it is too ‘flat’ a reading of it, too simplistic, suggesting that Jesus simply replaces one set of laws with another: an inner moral purity replacing an outer ritual purity. I will say a little more about why I disagree with this reading later.
However this simple reading provides the ethical cover needed to allow some to happily now eat lobster and bacon, whilst remaining critical of certain moral acts which were forbidden by the Levitical law – such as same-sex relationships.
Conflicts over how we read scripture lead us to the second aspect of this debate, how to we hear and understand the experience of others on this most difficult of questions, and how we use these experience to colour how we then go about reading scripture.
At the conference this process was done chiefly on the second morning. Then we were invited individually, then in small groups, and then together to consider this question: “What has shaped your personal experience and understanding of human sexuality?”
How we each approached this task was defined by what we understood by the phrase “human sexuality”?
For some the phrase human-sexuality is a synonym for same-sex relations.
But as I read and re-read the question I came to realise that this was not a question about same-sex attraction or otherwise; instead this was a question for all of us. We are all human; we all have and experience sexual desire. To examine ‘human-sexuality’ properly requires each one of us to examine how our deepest desires inform how we relate to one another and to God.
When we consider our desires and passions, sexual or otherwise, we are all in danger of judging them for what they are. Some are “good” – I want a cream-cake but I won’t – and some are “bad” – I want a cream cake and in fact I want six.
Human desire is though much more complex than this.
The tradition of spiritual exercises developed by the sixteenth-century writer Ignatius of Loyola provides a framework for how we can consider our natural human desires as not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Within this Ignatian tradition we are taught to examine our desires, but not to judge them. Rather we are encouraged to see whether or not these desire draws us to God – bring us consolation – or away from God, leading to desolation.
It is perfectly possible for a desire which we might enjoy to be drawing us to God – the pleasure we get in helping friends. Whilst the same desire and emotion could be drawing us from God – the pleasure we get from the misfortune of others.
The same can be said of desires and emotions which we might find painful. So our anger over the state of a particular relationship draws us away from that relationship and so from God. But our anger at human injustice can draw us closer to God as we seek a way to overcome this injustice.
What Ignatius teaches us is that our desires, emotions, passions are not things in themselves, but signs pointing us towards or away from God. Our task is not to get hung up on our desires, but use them as we seek the deeper truth they reveal.
I believe that the Ignatian lens of examining our desires to see if they are bring us consolation or desolation can help us in Church’s wider debate on human sexuality in several ways.
The first is that it can democratise the conversations we have.
As I have said, within this debate ‘human-sexuality’ has become a synonym for same-sex attraction. So much of the debate revolves around people with same-sex attraction or in same-sex relationships having to defend and justify themselves in the court of moral judgement.
But all of us can rightly be asked to examine our own desires, our own sexual identity and reflect on those times when our desires have drawn us closer to God, and when they have taken us away from God.
Through this lens we are better able to understand and challenge all forms of human relationship equally. So a loving and covenanting same-sex relationship can be recognised as a place of consolation; drawing the couple and those who they know towards God. In the same way some seemingly ‘normal’ heterosexual marriages hide patterns of power and abuse which point lead them away from God – to a place of desolation.
In that frame I know which form of relationship I believe the Church should be celebrating and supporting.
The second opportunity is that this lens helps us re-examine scripture and scriptural teaching on all accounts of sexual activity. As I have said, too much of this debate is hampered by what I see to be ‘flat’ readings of scripture – “in my translation it says it in chapter 6 verse 2 so it must be true”. My hope is that this Ignatian lens can also inform how we return with greater wisdom and depth to aspects of scripture which rightly trouble us.
Put simply, if we are to examine teaching on same-sex relations, we should also examine those stories in the Bible which tell of heterosexual relations which trouble us: Abraham and Hagar, Lot and his daughters, David and Bathsheba, and on and on. At this point it is worth noting that the list of damaging heterosexual relationships is much longer than all the teaching on all the passages relating to same-sex relations. But how often does the Church speak out against their modern counterparts with the heat and light it currently reserves for same-sex relationships?
Finally, returning to today’s gospel, a focus on consolation and desolation, helps us re-examine our deepest desires and passions not as things in themselves, things which are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but as signposts pointing towards or away from the heart of God.
If we spend time with today’s Gospel, if we allow it to challenge us to examine our inner being with wisdom and insight we move through a ‘flat’ and simple reading of this passage. Instead we come to a deeper and richer understanding of today’s Gospel as we recognise that Jesus is not simply replacing an external ritual law with an inner moral one. Instead Jesus is challenging us to examine with honesty our inner identity, our inner desires, to learn how they, as with all things, can help draw us into the heart of God’s love.