…a rough transcription of a sermon I shared at First United Methodist Church of Laurel, MD on February 20, 2011
[Disclaimer: For my friends and readers with passionately defined views regarding the nature of human sexuality, homosexuality in particular, no matter your views, you will most likely encounter things in this post that will offend, upset, or even shock you, i.e. “Wow, I didn’t know he thinks that way! How dare he!!” You’ve been warned now. Keep in mind, however, that I continue to listen and strive to love and respect both you and your perspective, even when we have serious points of disagreement. Having spent countless hours in learning, conversation and dialogue about LGBT sexuality, most especially with people who are LGBT, I have learned to tolerate the heat of disagreements I’ve encountered with both conservative and progressively minded folks. I have also come to see that we share far more in common than we often realize, even in the heat of our differences.]
Scripture: Romans 1:18-2:5
I had originally intended to share a message grappling with the topic of homosexuality in the last series of sermons I preached called “When Christians Get It Wrong… and How to Get It Right Again.” But then things like surgery got in the way. And of course, none of my stand-in speakers wanted to touch that topic with a ten-foot pole!
Yet God has a way of continually showing me that nothing is by accident, including this delayed sermon. In the time I was recovering from surgery, two dramatic things concerning homosexuality have happened. In light of these things, I think the time is particularly right for us as Christians to call on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, read up on Scripture, examine again the historic teachings of the Church and take an honest look at the present realities of gay and lesbian people, all so that we can get a grip on what we believe concerning homosexuality. Just as importantly, we need to understand how to live those beliefs with our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors.
The first dramatic thing to happen occurred at the beginning of this month– a statement of counsel prepared by 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church. They are asking for the removal of this statement from our Book of Discipline:
“…The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” ¶304.3
They understand this statement to be embarrassing, insensitive, and discriminatory towards gay and lesbian men and women who demonstrate the necessary graces, fruits, and abilities to be ordained clergy.
It’s important to understand a few things about this statement. Because it’s crafted by a group of bishops, it does carry a lot weight and importance. However, bishops cannot change our church’s stances and policies. That is left to our General Conference, a body of elected clergy and laity who meet every four years primarily to edit and update our denomination’s Book of Discipline, which alone articulates our policies, protocols, and procedures.
In the mean time, this statement’s gravity cannot and will not be ignored.
Then only a few weeks later, some historic legislation has been moving through Maryland’s state government. Just this past week, the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings committee approved a bill for a Senate vote that would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. Up until this point, the Maryland Senate had been one vote shy the filibuster-proof majority it would need to end the debate and vote. State Senator Jim Rosapepe, our state Senator, has agreed to be that deciding vote. That all but assures passage of this bill through the Senate. The House of Delegates is expected to pass the bill, and Governor O’Malley has promised to sign the bill into law. When that happens, Maryland would become the sixth state in our country to legalize same-sex marriage.
It almost goes without saying that this is a very, very emotionally charged issue. Why? It’s because we’re dealing with the fundamental aspects of our humanity: love, relationships, marriage, and family. For us Christians, we’re also talking the role of the Bible in defining sexuality, what is sin and not sin, and how the pages of Scripture might possibly speak to the experiences of gay and lesbian people.
When talking to Christians about homosexuality, especially when events such as I’ve mentioned unfold, there tend to be three distinct responses.
One Christian response strongly affirms the rights and dignity of gay and lesbian people. This response believes that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. They were born, at no fault of their own, with a propensity to be attracted to people of the same gender, something that is therefore not a sin but an essential make-up of their being, no less than heterosexual people. The most important aspect of the Bible to them is Jesus’ treatment of all people and the fact that he never condemns homosexual relations. In fact, he embraced and included people whom the religious community rejected for being sinful or unclean.
Another Christian response, just as passionate but very different, is condemnation of homosexuality– not of gay and lesbian people as people, but of homosexual attractions and relationships. They too affirm that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. Yet in reading the Bible, they see several passages, including the Romans passage above that denounce homosexual relations as an act of sin. They believe, based on their reading of Scripture, that God designed sexuality exclusively to be shared between a man and a woman.
Then there is a third Christian response that often goes under the radar. This response doesn’t really see this issue as all that important, or doesn’t quite know what to think about something as complicated and controversial as homosexuality. These Christians would be content to see that all people are loved and respected by one another, understanding that God loves each of us, especially when we fail to love God and others as we should.
Overall though, I believe that Christians have done a pretty terrible job dealing with the issue of homosexuality and our differences over this issue. We have been stuck in a fierce debate for close to 40 years. Each side as demonized the other for being unloving, ungodly, compromising the gospel, and causing division in the Church.
Not only that, but when young adults are asked to describe Christians and the Church, one statistic shows that 91% would describe us as anti-gay. The reality is, right or wrong, young people understand homosexuality much differently than their parents and grandparents do. In my personal experience, I know many people, young and old, who will have nothing to do with the Church primarily because they perceive us to be anti-gay.
In our church, I’ve talked to enough people to realize that we have very diverse opinions on homosexuality which encompass all three of the above Christian responses I just mentioned. So I realize that no matter what I teach regarding homosexuality, I risk upsetting some people. Therefore, I believe that we must commit to some critical things when dealing with this or any other hot-button topic: commit to listening, respecting, and loving each other through the differences we may have. We must continually affirm that the greatest common factor among us is never a conflict but rather Jesus Christ our Lord.
Switching gears, I thought that a good way to teach about homosexuality from my Christian point of view would be to share my own story of how I have arrived at my understandings of homosexuality. I don’t share this in order to ram anything down your throat. I share these things to give you a springboard to formulate your own biblical, Christ-centered views, realizing that at the end of the day, we will most likely remain diverse in our views.
Before coming into the church and becoming a Christian at the age of 18, I had no opinion one way or the other concerning the morality or acceptability of homosexuality. I lived in a world of stereotypes, especially of gay men, but that never formulated into any kind of strong view. Yet when I came into the church, I began to hear my pastor and many others teach and preach from the Bible that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. The Romans 1:18ff passage was certainly one of the main passages that was repeatedly quoted.
Hearing all of this, how could I argue with the Bible, especially if the Bible is God’s Word? So, I took as my point of view that the practice of homosexuality is sinful, and I took it quite stridently, too. I didn’t hate or look down upon gay or lesbian people, nor did I reject them. For me, it was a matter of upholding the authority of biblical standards, and in this case, biblical standards on human sexuality.
As I continued to grow and mature, I began to meet and get to know more and more gay and lesbian people. I began to see first-hand how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not a mere matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin or not, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay. It also involves the question of how Christians relate to and minister with gay people.
I also began to listen to many, many stories, particularly from gay Christians who all shared that they grew up knowing that they were somehow different, that unlike most all their friends, they were attracted to people of the same gender. They prayed and prayed for God to take those feelings away and make them straight. Many even tried straight relationships, and some even married someone of the opposite gender, only to fail at their marriage. In other words, it didn’t seem to be their choice to be gay. In fact, given the choice, many would rather have been straight to avoid all the stigma and rejection from being gay. Finally, they came to accept themselves for who they are, recognizing that God loves and accepts them just as they are.
In reflection, I believe, based on how I read the Scriptures, that God designed sexuality to be shared between a man and a woman and that homosexual attractions and relationships, while not necessarily a conscious choice, is not within God’s plan and intention for human sexuality. The best biblical understanding I can derive comes from that same Romans passage in which Paul attributes homosexuality to be the result of a fallen humanity that has turned away from God. When it comes down to it, I cannot see Scripture affirming homosexuality, only condemning it as outside of God’s will.
However, I do not and I will not teach or preach this belief stridently or often at all. I prefer to get into it as little as possible. And that has been to the dismay of many church members I’ve worked with who would prefer that I become more ardently vocal against homosexuality. I will not.
The fact is, this is a deeply painful issue for me. I have very close family members, friends, and neighbors who are gay and lesbian. I trust and love them very, very much, and I always will. I have listened to many of their stories. As a result, I live every day in a tension between my biblical beliefs and the fact that most often those same beliefs stir up so much hurt within my gay and lesbian friends, family members, and neighbors. I just can’t relinquish my love and embrace of them or my love and embrace of God’s Word. Therefore I live in this constant, painful tension.
I’m also deeply conflicted over the nature of the debate concerning homosexuality. It can get particularly nasty and polarizing. While I vote my conscious whenever I’m asked to, I do not want to contribute to the divisive intensity of the debate. Furthermore, I do not tend to sign on to petitions or take strong public stances on homosexuality.
My God-given role has been to be a peacemaker by attempting to bring about dialogue and understanding between different points of view on homosexuality while seeking an alternative way forward for us Christians to take other than the disparate options offered by either side of the debate. Let me tell you, this has been every bit as difficult as taking a strong public stance on one side or the other. I have been treated as a traitor and a compromiser by some of my conservative friends and colleagues. I’ve been viewed as anti-gay and a bigot by some of my progressive/liberal friends and colleagues. I’ve been called out by both crowds for all the above on the same day, even! Peacemaking has not been an easy road to take… at all.
Yet, all in all, there is something I want you to hear loud and clear. As long as I am pastor of this church, I will not tolerate anyone being turned away, mistreated, demeaned, ostracized, or in any way unloved because of their sexual orientation. If you are gay or lesbian, I will always be your pastor, and this will always be your church as much as you allow us to be. I will always love you, and I will defend you in the face of any attitude that is less than fully loving or accepting of you as a child of God and my sister or brother in the Lord.
I will gently tell you what I believe the truth to be about human sexuality. We may wrestle through that, and sometimes we may both come out of it limping. But I will always embrace you as my brother or sister in Christ. If anything, I’ll learn to hold on to you more tightly and compassionately, as long as you allow me to.
So, how do we as a church get it right when understanding and relating to our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors?
First, we must always affirm our faith in the Bible as God’s Word and what it teaches while remaining open to listen to the Holy Spirit’s counsel, especially in the voices of others. We must respect the fact that while I believe the way I do, it may severely contradict they way you believe. I may firmly believe you’re wrong, and you may believe the same about me. Yet we must listen to each other. We must especially listen to understand not just what the other believes, but respectfully listen to why they believe what they believe. And who knows? We might actually learn something from the Holy Spirit that would impact our own views!
Secondly, we must live in an unconditional love towards others whose views are different from our own and towards those who are gay and lesbian. As for me, I know I’m doing this well when others who are different from me don’t perceive me as standoffish, guarded, close-minded, holier-than-thou or in any way unable to love and accept them. When I can fully identify myself with them and they sense that, then I know that I’m getting closer to Christ’s unconditional love.
Believe me, that’s not a compromise or a cop out. I’ve learned my methods from none other than Jesus himself. Do you remember when Jesus shared a meal at Matthew’s house? He was there with the notorious ragamuffins of his day: tax-collectors and “sinners”. And of course, the religious people were all over Jesus’ case for that! “Jesus, don’t you know who you’re eating with?” In Jesus day, you only shared a meal with those whom you closely identified as your trusted friends and family. Jesus ate with Matthew and his guests anyway, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t sitting around arguing with the tax collectors about their unscrupulous tax collecting methods or calling out the sinners for their wrongs. He was simply being with them in an embracing love of God. And that love of God has the power to transform us all, gay or straight, sinners all, into God’s holy people, in God’s time and in God’s way.
In other words, in the turmoil and complexity of these tumultuous times and debates, it really does come down to asking that simple question, “What would Jesus do?” By God’s grace, we endeavor to do it, and we discover the abundance of life that comes from living like Jesus.