August 24, 2014

A Thorny Issue

This morning we are in the third part of our series, The God I Don’t Believe In.  The whole idea for this series is that sometimes when people reject God and Christianity, if you were to push them on the character and identity of the god they are rejecting it turns out not to be the Christian God at all.  In fact, it is a god we as Christians would gladly join them in rejecting.  So far in the series we have looked at the god who makes his followers dumb and the god who only really cares about the rich.

This morning we are going to take a look at yet another god we don’t believe in, and this one is a little…thornier…than the two we’ve seen so far.  Of all the various issues our nation has faced in the last few years perhaps no single issue has had a more significant impact and been more divisive than the issue of homosexuality.  This issue has divided the culture for many years, but more than that it has divided the church.  Increasingly, the issue is dividing the church from the culture.  While there are certainly voices of moderation advocating for a middle way through the mess, the loud mouths on the fringes tend to get the most media play.  We’ve all heard of the hateful fools of the Westboro community (I won’t call them a church and it brings me no small amount of grief that they call themselves “Baptist,” so I won’t give them that title either).  On the other side, though, are a number of figures both public and private who have expressed directly or indirectly that gay rights should be considered more important than any other rights including religious rights meaning they think any kind of opposition to homosexuality, whether religiously motivated or not, should be illegal.  And, culturally-speaking, many more folks agree with this second group than they do the Westboro nuts.  What more, all the momentum is pointed in this direction.  In 1996, the year President Clinton signed the “Defense of Marriage Act,” public support for same-sax “marriage” was 27%.  Today that number has climbed to 53% of the total population including a whopping 73% of 18-29 year olds.  That is perhaps the most dramatic shift in public opinion on a major issue ever in our history!

In the middle of all this mess stands the church which has traditionally viewed homosexual practice as sinful.  With the pace and direction of the cultural changes on this issue the traditional position of the church is looking worse and worse.  In light of this believers from across the spectrum have been struggling with how to respond.  Some have thrown caution to the wind and jumped on the cultural bandwagon.  Some churches have doubled down on their opposition and become bastions of people who think alike, but who are having a harder and harder time engaging with a culture that views them as hateful, bigoted, and homophobic.  Still other churches have closed their theological eyes and ears and are hoping the issue will pass so they can get on back to business as usual.  Yet because of the direction the culture is moving on this matter, the church is not going to be able to ignore it or treat as something to be dealt with later for much longer.

In the meantime, two factors are making things even more complicated.  First, the legal normalization of same-sex “marriage” is almost total.  The U. S. Supreme Court will in all likelihood cast the deciding vote on that sometime next year.  In the meantime, with a single recent exception every state law somehow prohibiting same-sex “marriage” that has been challenged in court has been struck down.  Second, a number of Jesus followers have failed in showing the love of Christ both to people struggling with this issue and those who are not struggling with it but rather find themselves on the more supportive side of the equation.  The result of this perfect storm has been that when most folks today think about church, the first thought that comes to mind is that it is anti-gay.  What more, because they think of the church and Christians generally as being anti-gay, the logical conclusion is that God must be too.  And, if God is anti-gay, if God hates gay people, then they don’t want anything to do with Him.  Can you blame them?  But, is this true?  Is God anti-gay?  Does He really hate gay people?  His followers sure seem to sometimes so the conclusion is the logical next step in thinking.  But is that the God we believe in?  I don’t; and I don’t think you should either.  If you’ll come with me for a few minutes, I’d like to show you both why this is and suggest some ways that we can navigate through this particular storm.

If you have a Bible with you in some form, turn or thumb your way to the first chapter of Romans.  If you don’t or if you want to make sure you have the same translation I’ll be using grab the insert in your bulletin and follow along with me as I read.  In the first eleven chapters of Romans the apostle Paul, who grew up hating Jesus followers and even spent the early part of his career trying to kill as many as he could find before becoming a Jesus follower himself after an experience with the risen Christ, laid out the basics of the Gospel.  Well, the end of the Gospel is salvation for all those who receive it.  But, in order to be saved we first must acknowledge we need saving.  And how do you get someone to acknowledge their need for saving?  By getting them lost.  Thus, Paul begins his exposition of the Gospel by making sure his readers understand just how lost people are apart from Christ and the results of such a state.  Incidentally, in the process of making sure we understand the implications of life apart from God he makes some observations that strike right at the heart of the cultural debate going on over how homosexuality should be received and understood.  In fact, his words strike so directly at the issue that in some countries even reading them publically is considered hate speech.  So brace yourselves and take a look at this with me.

“But God’s angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth.  But the basic reality of God is plain enough.  Open your eyes and there it is!  By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.  So nobody has a good excuse.  What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives.  They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life.  They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.”

In other words, God made Himself knowable to us.  He reached out to us.  But, in spite of this, we turned our backs on Him and made a play at living life our way.  Well, in comparison to who God is this play is the paramount of ridiculousness, but still we make it, preferring mere created things to the Creator.  But, rather than wiping us out as He was certainly entitled to do, God chose another route.  He let us have what we wanted.  The results, as Paul next points out, weren’t pretty.  Keep reading this with me.

“So God said, in effect, ‘If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.’  It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out.  And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless; the God who blesses us.  Oh, yes!  Worse followed.  Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either—women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men.  Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love.  And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.”

These are hard words and we’re going to come back to them, but believe it or not, it still gets worse.  Look how Paul ends this: “Since they didn’t bother to acknowledge God, God quit bothering them and let them run loose.  And then all hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing.  They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating.  Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, fork-tongued God-bashers.  Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags!  They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives.  They ditch their parents when they get in the way.  Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded.  And it’s not as if they don’t know better.  They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face.  And they don’t care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!”

So in sum, what Paul is describing here is a mess.  We turned on God in favor of going our own way without His help and to a great extent He let us.  Well, disconnected from the source of all that’s good, we took off after all that’s…well…not.  Separated from the thing that makes us human, the thing that makes us different from the animals—the image of God—we became something less…all in the name of being something more.  When we became something less than fully human the litany of consequences Paul lists out here were pretty predictable.  When we stop believing that people (including ourselves) are unique creatures made in the image of a God who is holy and good, anything goes.  Some folks try and argue that’s not actually the case, but history tells a different story.

Now, in that last rather colorful paragraph Paul is focusing in on the relational consequences of divorcing ourselves from our humanity.  In that second to last paragraph, Paul talks about the more fundamental issue of our loss of identity.  The Genesis narrative says that we were created male and female in the image of God.  He created us as such in part with the intention of seeing us procreate, or continue God’s program of creation.  And the way He designed this to happen is with this thing called sex. And in part because it was designed as the way in which more of these unique creatures all bearing the image of God were made, He made it really, really powerful such that it doesn’t exist and happen on its own, but is a fundamental part of what it means to be a man or a woman, of what it means to be human.  Well, when we embraced sin and all its inglorious consequences and our understanding of what it means to be a human creature was broken, so was this integral part of us.  We lost our understanding of what it means to be a man created in God’s image, what it means to be a woman created in God’s image.  Now, if it had been me creating, when humanity became broken by sin I would have taken that part out simply because of how powerful it is.  Why trust something so powerful to the hands of a broken creature?  But God didn’t.  He didn’t take away any of the gifts He had given us in our original creation in spite of the fact that they were now all broken.  He chose instead to fix things by another means that would ultimately bring more glory for Him.

With all of that in mind, let me get right down to making Paul’s point here clear.  What Paul is saying here is that one of the ways in which the brokenness of our sexuality manifests itself is through homosexuality.  Now, let me make two points and then we’ll talk about what to do with all of this.  First, doesn’t arguing that what Paul is saying here is that homosexual individuals are manifesting in a particular form the sexual brokenness stemming from the Fall come off as sounding harsh and judgmental?  For ears well-tuned to our current cultural narrative, yes, it does.  I’m well aware of that.  There’s a reason this particular passage of Scripture has resulted in pastors being charged with hate speech in other countries.  We’re not far from that here.  Paul doesn’t split hairs here and it’s hard to hear.  Now, folks have tried to argue that Paul really meant something other than this, but the plainest meaning of the text is what I’ve shared with you this morning.  So, yes, this is a hard passage.  Second point: Paul in no ways suggests here that homosexuality is the only form of sexual brokenness stemming from our original embrace of sin.  Neither does he argue that it is somehow worse than any other.  There are a number of other expressions of this brokenness many of which are mentioned in other parts of the Bible.  For example, you may have heard in the news that the former CEO of a Baptist conference center in Missouri—a place without which I wouldn’t be here doing this, married to Lisa, and whose son happens to have been a close friend of mine when I was growing up—was arrested for seeking out a dog to do things with that you shouldn’t do with a dog.  I’ve known this man for most of my life.  I grew up spending the night at his house and playing with his kids.  He was a good man, a great father, a committed husband, a fine follower of Christ.  He got caught up in a storm of sexual brokenness that has neither cultural favor nor legal protection (which was true about homosexuality until not all that long ago) and it has blown up in his face, doing a lot of collateral damage in the process.

In light of this and what Paul said let me make a very clear statement: The God I believe in, the God revealed in the writings of men like Paul, doesn’t hate my friend’s dad.  He doesn’t hate gay people.  He doesn’t hate people dealing with any form of sexual brokenness.  In fact, He doesn’t hate anybody dealing with any kind of sin at all.  His heart breaks for them.  He sometimes allows them to experience the full weight of the consequences of their actions.  But He doesn’t hate them.  As the man who was probably Jesus’ best friend in the world during His time on earth once wrote: God is love.  Getting right to the point here: anybody who communicates in some kind of way that God thinks less of people who are dealing with homosexuality in any capacity doesn’t know my God very well.  That’s not the god I believe in and you shouldn’t either.  The God of the Bible doesn’t hate gay people.  That’s the god of the Westboro nuts, and I hope you’ll join with me in rejecting that god.

That all being said, though, we are still left with the very much thorny issue of how we are to effectively share with people about this God who is worth following in the context of a culture that has fully embraced the normalcy of homosexuality and is remarkably intolerant to any opposition.  How do we move forward in this and respond well to this issue?  Well, given the sheer weight of culture here, any paths which veer from the path of least resistance (also known as the path of full acceptance) are going to be littered with obstacles.  The reaction to folks who try and walk them will generally be swift and severe even from fellow believers who happen to have chosen a more culturally in-tune path.  Be that as it may, allow me to suggest four points that I think point toward a way forward consistent with our belief in the God who is worthy of our worship.

First, we need to decide whether or not homosexual practice is sinful.  That seems like it should perhaps be an easy decision to make, but reality suggests otherwise.  The fact is that many Jesus followers—perhaps including some in this very room—conclude it isn’t.  The reasons they do this are manifold.  It could be that they have a close friend or family member who is gay and the thought of pronouncing their chosen lifestyle sinful is nigh on anathema to them.  I get that.  This is especially true if the person isn’t a believer or has turned away from the Christian faith because of their sense that the Christian faith rejects who they feel they are.  Because our culture has accepted wholesale the false notion that we are what we do it struggles mightily with the idea that the church could reject someone’s behavior without rejecting them.  Or it could be that they would prefer to be culturally relevant rather than Biblically relevant and so buy into convincing-sounding explanations that what the Bible seems to say about current hot button issues it doesn’t really.  Whatever the reason, though, many folks conclude that it isn’t sinful.  Here’s the thing, though: if it is not sin, any opposition to homosexuality of any kind is indeed hateful.  The critics of the church are absolutely right.  If it is, however—and I believe the case for this is much stronger—then we are dealing with people who are sinners because of this particular issue (in addition, perhaps, to many others) and should be treated as such.

This brings us to the second point: if in fact homosexual practice is sinful such that a person actively living a homosexual lifestyle is a sinner, how is it that sinners are to be treated?  Again, once the knee jerk reactions on both sides of the issue begin to ebb, we can address this important question biblically.  And, the way to do this is to ask a fairly simple question: how did Jesus treat sinners?  Did He not love them?  Was He not kind to them?  Did He not fellowship with them?  Did He not accept them just as they are?  In fact, He spent so much time rubbing elbows with the sinners of His day that he was called a “friend of sinners” and that wasn’t intended to be a compliment. Far from judging the sinners of His day, He refused to condemn them.  In a much-beloved episode from Jesus’ life He was presented with a woman caught in the act of adultery (think about the phrasing of that for a minute and you’ll see that she was almost certainly set up).  The Law said that she was to be stoned for her crimes (so was man whose curious absence from this whole affair is notable).  The text says that in answer Jesus wrote something in the dirt and when pressed on the matter invited the sinless members of the accusing crowd to cast the first stone at which point they all went away.  Rising to speak directly to the woman, He asked her: “Is there no one left to condemn you?”  When she answered, “None, Sir,” He replied, “Then neither do I condemn you.”  I mean, how much more accepting of sinners could Jesus be?  So then, we should just let people do whatever they want?  Not quite.  Jesus’ next words are important too: “Now go and sin no more.”  He accepted this woman and other sinners just as they were.  He welcomed all the least, last, and lost of His world with open arms.  He ran to embrace them as they returned home.  But, He was never content to leave them sinning.  He called them to righteousness.  As a church, this is what we must do for not merely homosexuals, but all people.  At Central we are all about creating a place where all people matter, but we are also all about creating a place where these people can be empowered to engage their world for Christ.  The implicit assumption here is that we are committed to seeing people become fully who God designed them to be…and that’s not a person struggling through the mess of sexual brokenness regardless of the form it happens to take.  In short, how are we to treat sinners?  We are to lavish love on them.

Now, we need to define that idea well, but one point needs to come before that.  The third point deals with an objection that is often raised here.  Why single out this particular sin in light of all the other sins you permissively tolerate?  There are three responses to someone raising this objection.  First, you’re right.  The church today is way too inconsistent in how it responds to sin in the lives of its members.  As I said a minute ago, sexual brokenness can manifest itself in a whole bunch of different ways both homo- and heterosexual and we shouldn’t tolerate any of them.  Straight people should no more be given a pass for pursuing non-marital sexual relations than gay people.  We’ve often failed here and need to do better.  Second, the way to do better is not to add another sin to the list we already tolerate.  It is to not tolerate sin as much.  It is to be more intentional about discipling our members in the Christian life and creating a better culture of loving accountability.  Every member of the church needs to be called to righteousness.  Third, this is a battle whose time and place has been dictated by our culture.  The church didn’t seek this out.  We are responding to our culture.  We are late to the game and we haven’t often played well, but the church isn’t the aggressor in this cultural conversation.

Final point: if we are going to commit ourselves to representing well the God who loves gay people (along with everyone else), we need to make sure that we know what love is.  I’ve said this so much and for so long that for some of you this is becoming a common refrain.  Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God designed them to be.  If we are doing this, we are showing love.  If we aren’t, we aren’t.  And, lest we omit an important point: just because someone shows signs of leaning toward a particular kind of sin, even from an early age, doesn’t mean God designed them to be that way.  It simply means that the sin born into them is expressing itself in a certain way.  Loving such people (which, by the way, is all of us) doesn’t mean helping them feel comfortable with who they are or who they feel like or even who they want to be.  It means being intentionally committed to seeing them become fully who God designed them to be.  That’s what God does for us.  He works intentionally in our lives to help us move in the direction of becoming fully who He created us to be.  He does this for every single one of us without condition or exception.  And He won’t quit for as long as we live.  That’s the God who’s worthy of worship.  That’s the God I believe in.  That’s the God I hope you believe in too.