The 2013 film Philomena is the story of an Irish woman’s search for the son she had out of wedlock who then was sold to an American couple by the nuns who ran a home for unwed mothers. After discovering that her son was gay and died of AIDS, Philomena also learns that Sister Hildegard prevented the son and mother from meeting when the young man visited Ireland shortly before his death. When they meet and Philomena asks the nun why she prevented her from meeting her son, Sister Hildegard answers, “You had no one to blame but yourself and your own carnal incontinence. Self-denial and mortification of the flesh… that’s what brings us close to God.”
Self-denial and mortification of the flesh… that has all too often been the Christian church’s attitude toward the kind of love celebrated in the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon from which Michael Dimengo read the first lesson.
One of the most common misunderstandings of religion in general and of the Christian religion, in particular, is that they are concerned with a realm we call “spirit” that is completely separate and apart from the realm of the earthly or material.
It’s easy to see why many Christians believe this when you read Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh..” But in fact, when Paul uses the words “flesh” and “Spirit”, he means something quite different than what we usually mean when we use those words.
This misunderstanding is not just a slur spread by the enemies of religion; it is a conviction deeply held by a lot of the faithful themselves, including a lot of good Christians who go to church every Sunday.
But if it is true that the spiritual and the physical are completely different realms, then why does the Bible contain the Song of Solomon? This extended poem is frankly – almost embarrassingly - erotic: “I am faint with love. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me… Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away… let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely… My beloved is mine and I am his…”
Of course, from the time this poem was written to the present day, good faithful religious people have tried to spiritualize it beyond recognition. The rabbis of Israel claimed that it depicted God’s love for b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. And the church fathers, following in the footsteps of the rabbis, claimed that it was about the love of Christ for the church.
Beware when people speak well of you and tell you how spiritual you are, because they are usually trying to make you completely irrelevant!
But of course, the rabbis and the church fathers were wrong; the Song of Solomon is a love poem. And to speak of love, one must speak of the flesh; one must speak not only of agape - the love which gives without seeking anything in return; one must not speak only of philos - the love that we have for our family members and friends; one must speak also of eros, or passion.
Plato said that eros was the child of hunger. Anyone who has ever loved another knows that Plato was right. If you have loved another with eros, passion, then you know the hunger for the other’s presence, the other’s eyes and voice, the other’s embrace, the other’s… well, I’m in a pulpit, so I better not finish that sentence!
Until very recently, the church, at best, merely tolerated gay and lesbian people, although there is no doubt that the church has had gay clergy from the very beginning. And although the church has done its best to marginalize women for most of the last 2000 years, I am certain that many of the women who did find ways to lead and serve loved other women.
The church told us that we would be acceptable only if we did to our love for one another what the church did to the Song of Solomon: We had to spiritualize it until it was nothing but a dried up stick. We had to deny that it had an erotic component.
And yet, at the very heart of the Christian faith is a celebration of the physical, of matter, of flesh: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word became sarx – a Greek word meaning flesh and blood and bone. The Word became flesh and blood and bone and lived among us.
The Christian faith is the most physical, the most fleshy of all religions. In the early church those wishing to be baptized stripped naked, and were anointed all over their bodies with sweet smelling oil before stepping into cold running water. Every Sunday from the first century to the present, Christians have claimed that they eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood when they receive the bread and wine of the eucharist.
To say that someone’s love for another is acceptable only as long as it does not include a physical, an erotic component, is to deny something essential to the Christian faith.
Tonight we are celebrating marriage equality in Nevada. Over the last few years we have witnessed a great sea change. In spite of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, (which should really be called the Denial of Marriage Act) thirty-five states now issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. From the enactment of DOMA in 1996 to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision granting same sex couples in Nevada the right to marry, we have traveled light years, but the price for that journey was too high.
The Song of Solomon says, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready…” It was the AIDS crisis that stirred up and awakened both love and rage.
Writer Andrew Sullivan says, “The radicalism of [AIDS] segued into the radicalism of gays in the military and same-sex marriage…. Once [we] had experienced… the responsibility for life and death for [ourselves] and others [we] … found it impossible to acquiesce in second-class lives. [We] demanded full recognition of [our] service to [our] country, and equal treatment under the law for the relationships [we] had cherished and sustained in the teeth of such terror.” (Love Undetectable, p. 65)
The AIDS crisis gave a voice to the love that once dared not speak its name. No longer voiceless, we refused to be silent when we were told that we could not serve openly and honestly in the service of our country. And then when we were told that the love of gay and lesbian couples was different from and less honorable than the love between a man and a woman, we spoke out again.
But the price was the death of 650,000 men and women. It was AIDS that brought our love out of the closet and empowered us to fight for recognition. And that gives new meaning to these words from the Song of Solomon: “…love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it”
On Dec. 1, I helped lead a candle light vigil for persons living with HIV/AIDS or who had died of AIDS. And that night I sensed that there was a connection between the vigil and the celebration of marriage equality that I was helping Bishop Edwards to plan, a connection that I couldn’t quite articulate.
And then it came to me in the form of a question: Would there have been an AIDS epidemic if the church had embraced gay and lesbian people? Would the AIDS quilt contain 48,000 panels if the church had given its blessing to gay and lesbian relationships? I don’t think so.
Andrew Sullivan also wrote, “Plagues and wars… force people to ask more fundamental questions of who they are and what they want…. Out of cathartic necessity and loss and endurance comes… a desire to turn these things into something constructive… [to] give meaning and dignity to what has happened. Hovering behind the politics of homosexuality in the midst of AIDS and after AIDS is the question of what will actually be purchased from the horror. What exactly … did a third of a million Americans die for? If not their fundamental equality, then what?”
The church’s refusal to accept gays and lesbians and affirm their relationships forced their eros, their passion, underground and into the shadows. Denied healthy channels, passion become pathological, and so the epidemic came.
For me tonight there is a note of sadness and anger in our celebration. It is wonderful that we have marriage equality in Nevada and 34 other states. It is wonderful that the Episcopal Church now allows me to bless and celebrate gay and lesbian relationships.
So thank you… I guess. But I also have to ask the church, “What took you so long? Why are you so late to the party?”
Why did it take you so long to say to your lesbian daughters and gay sons, “We love you and accept you. We bless your relationships and want to encourage them.” Because for such a very, very long time, that is not what you told us, and it is still not what many, perhaps most, branches of the Christian church are saying.
Some would say that the church withheld its blessing from its gay and lesbian children because of the Bible. They tell us that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and you cannot bless gay and lesbian relationships without undermining the authority of the Bible.
But I don’t find that a very persuasive argument. There are just over 800,000 words in the Bible. The Old Testament contains only 45 words that unambiguously refer to homosexuality. In the New Testament there are only 48 words that refer unambiguously to homosexuality. There are a few words that are ambiguous, so let’s include them. That gives us possibly 51 words in the New Testament that refer to homosexuality.
So if we combine the Old Testament and the New Testament, that gives us 96 words that refer to homosexuality. Ninety-six out of more than 800,000. That means there are at least 799,914 words that don’t say anything about homosexuality, either positive or negative.
Now, it’s a little unfair of me to argue this way. After all, you can’t assume that homosexuality is not an important topic in the Bible just because it has so little to say about homosexuality.
So let’s look at a couple of other things. What did Jesus have to say about homosexuality? Not a thing. What about the Ten Commandments? Nothing there either.
This is not the time or place to go into all the reasons that Christianity gave such extraordinary weight to just 96 words in the Bible, words that were used to justify the condemnation and sometimes the killing of men and women who loved differently. But I am certain that the world would be a warmer, better, more loving place if the church had read those words in a different light.
I loved a man who was an elder in the Presbyterian church and who was also HIV positive. Scott and I were together for two years. I am certain that his life would have been very different if the church had accepted the way he loved, had offered to bless his relationship with another man. Perhaps he would not have become infected.
I am certain that my life would have been very different if I had gone off to college with the encouragement of my parents to meet a nice young man, settle down, and get married. Perhaps I would not have arrived at my 59th year having spent only two of those years in a loving and intimate relationship with another man.
So by all means, let’s celebrate marriage equality in Nevada and elsewhere. But there is a skeleton at the party or rather 650,000 skeletons, so for me this celebration is tinged with regret and anger.
The most powerful moment in the movie Philomena occurs immediately after Sister Hildegard tells Philomena that what’s important is “self-denial and mortification of the flesh” and that she prevented her from meeting her dying son because of her “carnal incontinence” as a young woman. Philomena looks at Sister Hildegard and says, “I want to tell you something: I forgive you.”
I would like to be able to say to the Christian church, “I forgive you,” but I’m not quite there yet.