As we begin today, I need to tell you a few things this message is not. This is not a comprehensive treatment of everything related to homosexuality and how it might affect the church. There is no way we could cover that kind of territory in the short time we have together in worship today. There will be things you might have expected me to address or are waiting for me to address but they will not be there. You are always free to stop by my office and discuss any of those questions with me.
This message will, hopefully, stretch you, make you think, and reflect on what you personally believe, at least it did for me as I prepared it these past few weeks. As we’ve explored these perceptions young adult outsiders have of the church, I hope and pray you’ve come to see the world from a different perspective, a world that does not have a clear picture of who Jesus is and who Jesus’ followers should be. We’ve explored the perceptions that Christians are hypocritical, insincere, judgmental, too political and sheltered. Today we explore the final perception: Christians are antihomosexual.
Without further ado, here is our Scripture for this morning. Let’s stand together…
That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.
Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.
You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things.
It was the summer before my freshman year in college, 11 years ago. My family was having a BBQ at my uncle’s place and I was expecting a time of good food, conversation, and maybe some fireworks. I got some fireworks alright but not the good, explosive, pretty kind. One of my cousins had just revealed to this large extended Christian family that he was gay and brought his African-American partner with him. I tell you his background because this side of my family has serious problems with racism. You can start to see what is going to happen.
When I arrived, there was hardly any conversation going on except the under-your-breath but not under-your-breath comments spewing homophobic and racist comments all at once. Not long after I arrived, my cousin and partner left. The comments kept coming and they begin to direct some questions at me, knowing I was going to be a pastor. I was not going to engage in a conversation with an already half-drunk crowd so I left as well, feeling like I needed a cleansing fire after the awful scene I had just witnessed.
This past Christmas, 11 years later, we finally got a Christmas card updating us on what my cousin has been doing. And that was a Christmas card from his mother updating us on his activities. 11 years. It has taken that long to even get communication going again; I still haven’t seen him at any family functions, but can you really blame him?
Sisters and brothers, that is unChristian behavior and is what young adult outsiders mean when they call us antihomosexual. Young adults believe we are not just against homosexuality, rejecting same-sex behavior, but against homosexuals as people. This attitude makes itself apparent in coarse jokes, inappropriate language, and how we treat people once we find out they are homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered.
Some outsiders think Jerry Falwell speaks for all Christians when he says things like AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals. Just so we’re clear, he does not speak for me. I’ve shown you an extreme to give you a glimpse as to how we might get the label that we are all antihomosexual.
In the culture where we live, the tides are shifting for a more much gay-friendly & open society than what we have seen so far. Homosexuality and bisexuality are becoming much more the norm in our culture. I meet with a group of youth pastors and find out that more and more high school students are exploring bisexuality because it is the cool and hip thing to do, not because they are attracted to the same gender.
Also, the statistics are showing in your generation much more approval for same sex unions and related political ideas. Now I show you these statistics not to get into a political conversation but simply to show how much the generations disagree on sexual lifestyles. Only 17% of the current college and high school generation have a problem with same sex unions, adoptions, etc. If you look at your grandparent’s generation, more than half have a problem with the same. Even though many states in the last decade have passed various amendments and laws to prevent same-sex unions, if these stats hold true, those will likely be overturned in this decade and the next.
In the midst of a changing culture, how is a follower of Jesus to live? And how do we respond to the charge that we are antihomosexual? You need to understand that the three big religions (Christianity, Islam & Judaism) all do say the ideal context for sexual relations is one man plus one woman. NT Wright, an Anglican theologian and pastor says this: Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse. This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule… killjoy in intention… Paganism ancient and modern has always found this ethic, and this belief, ridiculous and incredible. Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of “private response to Scripture” but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.
Some of you will hear quotes like that and wholeheartedly agree; you may be a traditionalist, one response to this changing culture. Traditionalists believe homosexuality is a sin but do everything in their power to make sure they are not homophobic like the examples we’ve seen so far. They believe the Bible is very explicit, like in our passage today and others, saying homosexual behavior is a sin. They see throughout the whole story of Scripture that the ideal is one man and one woman. Traditionalists believe God tells us some things are wrong not because God is a cosmic killjoy but because God loves us and wants the best for us. They acknowledge that it is rare for homosexual persons to change orientations but believe God can do anything. Traditionalists recognize that homosexuality is just one of a number of sins and we all are a broken and sinful people that do not reach God’s ideal in many areas.
Other people may read the quote from NT Wright and might recall that there have been various sexual behaviors, like polygamy, practiced in Judaism, in Islam, and the recent openness to female pastors in many Christian denominations. These folks would argue that fully accepting homosexual behavior is just another step like those above; you might prefer the progressive view.
Progressives believe passages like the one read this morning do not take into account lifelong homosexual relationships. Some believe Paul only meant heterosexuals to not engage in homosexual behavior and argue he was talking about a specific form of homosexuality in the 1st century. Progressives believe this out of an awareness of God’s love for all people. They do not see homosexuality as a choice (and much scientific data agrees with them) and note that in teenagers, same-sex attraction can lead to despair, even suicide in some cases. Progressives note Jesus never said anything about homosexuality and always drew people to himself. They desire to see bans in various denominations lifted to allow homosexual pastors and same-sex unions.
I know very deeply committed and thoughtful Christians on both sides of this issue whom I very much respect. I’m going to share with you my thoughts this morning as a United Methodist pastor and as a fellow follower of Christ. Just about the only thing we United Methodists make news for is our stance on homosexuality. Every 4 years our international body gets together and one of the most hotly debated topics is this one.
The official doctrinal stance can be summarized in these two phrases: “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and “All persons, including homosexuals, are individuals of sacred worth. We are committed to ministry for and with all persons.” We are not allowed to perform same-sex unions in our churches, have pastors who are practicing homosexuals, or give money to organizations that promote the acceptance of homosexuality. Yet we also support civil liberties and human rights for homosexuals. While this is the doctrinally stated positions, not all United Methodists agree. As such, you have traditionalists and progressives under one denomination that make for very interesting meetings.
While the position may sound paradoxical, it comes from an understanding of Scripture. In this passage of Romans today, I hope you realize it is not just talking about homosexuals. Here is the first verse again: That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires (Romans 1:26a). Who are they? All of us. Paul is talking about how all of us have the capacity to sin and miss God’s ideal in so many areas of our lives. Here is a quick summary of all of the sins, the misses, that Paul mentions in that short passage: homosexual behavior, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, boastful, invent new ways of sinning, disobey their parents, no understanding, break their promises, heartless, and have no mercy.
Let me be clear. If you are a homosexual, I want to be your pastor. I would be honored to serve you in that capacity. You need to know you are always welcome in worship and in anything else that we might do. And part of me wants to stop there but I can’t. I simply cannot get around the entire witness of the Scripture, not just this verse, that makes it clear that homosexual behavior is not God’s ideal. If you were to press me, yes, I believe homosexuality is a sin but I also believe so is the intolerant, mistreatment and persecution that some are given in the name of Christianity and the church.
How does Paul follow up this laundry list of misses? You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things (Romans 2:1). Guess what? We all sin. We all fall short somewhere. Just because we might not have with same-sex desires does not mean we have the right to condemn someone else because they do. Who is the ultimate judge? I’ll give you a hint: it is not us.
The statistics tell us 5-7% of Americans are homosexual, so roughly 15-21 million people today. I think it is so easy of us to pass judgment on this one issue because there are, relatively speaking, so few people that deal with it. But how did Jesus treat the outsiders and the outcasts? He went to them and made them feel and know that God was on their side. The church, in this emerging world of varied sexual expression, is going to have to find new ways to reach out to all the different kinds of families there are and constantly walk that line of tension between what the Bible calls sin, missing the ideal, and grace.
The problem for anyone who says homosexuality is a sin is that our culture has tied sexuality to our primary identity, as if it is everything that we are. To say homosexuality is a sin is sometimes heard as ‘you do not have worth as a person.’ NT Wright says “It is a very recent innovation to consider sexual preferences as a marker of ‘identity’ parallel to, say, being male or female, English or African, rich or poor.” Our culture is so sexuality-obsessed that we use it to sell everything from body spray to sub sandwiches to rice. Yes, rice! Sexuality is a part of who we are but it is not everything. We are so much more than just what we do with the physical part of our existence.
We asked a recent graduate of DWU who is a lesbian, recently married to her partner and this is what she had to say about her experience at church: “I am not asking that they agree or let gays run amok — I am just asking that they would see me as more than a lesbian and realize I am still that woman who has been so active in the church and who still has a heart for God. My ideal church would respond to my relationship the same way they would respond to any other relationship of two people who love each other and are committed to each other. I would like to be able to openly talk about my spouse; mention upcoming anniversaries, birthdays, fun trips, etc. with her; if we struggle in whatever way, have prayer requests in support of us and/or be able to talk to the pastor about it. Essentially, we want a church that celebrates our joys and cries with us during out sorrows — we want it to be a support group that helps us to live a godly, Christian life that recognizes that our love is a part of that life.”
We also asked one of our lesbian students on campus to talk about her experiences in church and at DWU. This is what she had to say: “At my home church I get a lot of strange looks for the way I dress. No one mentions anything about me being gay but they never ask personal questions like if I have a significant other or if I’ve met anyone. I try not to go to church except for important dates because of the looks I get. And I would never bring my girlfriend with me. At DWU, though, I feel more accepted and people don’t really look at that aspect of my life as a defining thing. I get recognized more for my sport than being gay. I love DWU and the people here. My dream church would be like any church but just treats me and my girlfriend like everyone else and not judge me. That’s God’s job, not theirs. My dream church treats everyone the same.”
The defining thing in our lives should be Jesus Christ, the fact we follow a man who brought peace and love to those who were suffering, who takes care of the poor, the lonely and the outcast, and brought the hammer to those who were too self-righteous to deal with outsiders, who simply wrote them off as sinners not worth saving.
Regardless of where you fall on this issue, she is right, in one sense, that the church should treat everyone the same because we are all sinners in need of God’s love and grace. This makes it very challenging for those who want to be traditionalists because you’ve got to walk the line of missing the ideal and showing grace.
My guess, for better or worse, is that in the near future the church will deal with homosexuality much like how we deal with divorce today. The church still teaches that divorce is not the ideal, in fact Jesus has some very stern words about it in Matthew. It would not be wrong to say that divorce is a sin. Yet do we kick out people who have gotten divorced or excommunicate them from community? No! The standard is still there but we are all a people that miss the mark and need to show each other grace and love as we walk down this Jesus path together.
May we be a place and a people where all can come, regardless of sexual orientation, to know that God loves them, accepts them, and wants the best for the life today and for the life that is yet to come.
Let’s pray together…
***For more, check out Adam Hamilton’s books “Confronting the Controversies” and “Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White.” I unashamedly borrowed his structure for this message. Thanks Adam!