February 20, 2011

Desire Gone Wrong

I want to start this morning a little differently than I normally do.  I want to start out by reading for you a passage of Scripture.  If you have your Bibles with you this morning, grab them and open them to Romans 1.  I’ll start reading in v. 15: “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish heart were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen.  For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.  For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

Now, were we worshiping in a number of Western countries other than this one (though ours is poised to join the fray), reading those words would render me guilty of hate speech laws for which the penalty ranges from fines to jail time.  And for what?  There doesn’t seem to be much there that is overly condemning of any one group of people.  If anything, Paul pretty much covers about any kind of sin I can think of here.  Everyone receives a target for his firings, particularly in the last five verses.  So why all the sound and fury?  Well, I’ll tell you.  The controversy surrounding these words stems primarily from two verses in the middle of the passage, specifically, vv. 26-27.  These two verses offer a fairly clear condemnation of homosexual behavior.  And when countries or counties or anything in between pass very broad ranging antidiscrimination and anti-defamation laws which include sexual orientation among the list of protected types, words such as those I just read can be (and have been) legitimately interpreted as discriminatory to a sufficient degree to warrant material consequences.  In other words, someone heard these words proclaimed and felt insulted enough to file a complaint with the powers that be.

Of all the hot topics we could possibly address together in this format, homosexuality is one of the hottest.  In more and more places in our culture today we are brought face to face with the issue whether we want to be or not.  Many of the most popular television shows feature a character who is a hiding, struggling, open, or practicing homosexual.  Some of these include Glee, Modern Family, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Pretty Little Liars, Will & Grace, and a number of others.  Most of these shows, however, don’t advance the discussion in any way.  They simply present the character as either brave but persecuted or simply completely normative and reflective of the broader society.  Try to have a discussion about the realities of homosexuality in an open forum and you will likely receive any number of angry condemnations excoriating you as a “gay-basher” or “homophobe,” or else some derogatory slur for a person struggling with homosexuality.  Well, when the voices given the biggest stages to speak for the many are either militant pro-gay rights groups or the Westboro group from Wichita, Kansas (I refuse, by the way, to call them a Baptist Church as they are neither Baptist nor a Christian church.  They are a hate-cult dressed in pseudo-Christian garb doing great harm to the name of Christ and keeping a number of people out of the kingdom who might otherwise be interested in checking it out.  They will one day face judgment for this.  I can speak to this with some experience as Lisa and I have been members of a church whom they protested.), is it any wonder a rational discussion of the issues involved here is hard to find?  Given what we said about our culture’s obsession with sex and the ironically ensuing shame associated with it, the likelihood of rationality and civility here was not good from the start.  Things went downhill from there.  And let us drop any delusions that this is an “out there” issue.  This is an emotional and personal issue.  Each of us has been or will be impacted by this personally at some point in our lives.

What all of this represents for us this morning, given our current context, is a challenge of love.  How does our definition of love work in a culture whose loudest voices increasingly promote homosexuality as just as normative as heterosexuality, case closed?  How do we respond in a lovingly Biblically way to a growing group of people (who, however, in spite of their loud megaphone, represent only a fraction of the actual population) who argue that their only real desire is to give and receive love in the way their heart is leading them?  How do we deal with increasing numbers of people in the church who are either revealing their struggles with this issue—like a friend from college whose dad was a pastor until he surprised his church and his family at the same time with the revelation of his homosexuality and moved to a city two hours away—or who argue that the Bible doesn’t actually offer any condemnations on the issue—as does Jim and Tammy Bakker’s son who is the pastor of a church in New York City?  Well, for this morning, we go back to our definition of love.  Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God created them to be.  This is our guide and our call.  This can only happen with the help of His Spirit and the guidance of the word.  So, with the Spirit guiding us, let’s turn to Paul’s words in Romans to see what he is really saying and then for the rest of this morning I want to humbly lay out a vision for a Biblically and theologically and pastorally sound response to this delicate issue.

Paul begins the main body of Romans with a declaration of his love for and devotion to the Gospel.  He declares it to be the power of God for salvation for everyone.  The Gospel reveals God’s righteousness and how we can live more fully in line with it.  From here, he begins to proclaim the Gospel.  The Gospel is certainly a message of love unlike any ever proclaimed at any other point in the history of the world, but not all of it feels loving all the time.  In fact, in order to get to the love part of the Gospel, we have to address the reality part of it.  And the reality part of it is that our current state leaves us in a woefully inadequate position to receive it.  The fact of reality is that we are sinful creatures.  Not only that, but we are committed to our sinfulness.  We have had ample opportunity to embrace the truth of God’s existence by simple observation of the world around us, but we have refused time and time again.  As a result of our determinedly opting for fantasy instead of reality, Paul says in v. 21 that our minds became clouded. We could no longer think and reason in reasonable ways.  What we held up as right and true was consistently not.  As we stuck with worshiping falsities, we ceased to be able to successfully determine the difference between them and reality.

Paul presents this indictment and then goes on to offer the consequence in three different lights. The consequence is that since we indicated that we were going to stick with sin, God stepped back and let us.  He stepped into the role of the parent who lets a nagging child have what he wants including the logical consequences.  The first light Paul shines on this is that we dishonored our bodies—the thing which most makes us human.  By denying the power and position of the One who created us we lost our purpose and identity.   The third light reveals the full extent of the evil of which we are capable. When people cease worshiping God, the list of ills in vv. 29-31 is the logical result.  The second light singles out one specific way people who have currently turned from God dishonor their body: homosexual relationships.  What all of this boils down to is that people doggedly sought things they should not have sought and eventually God let them pursue what they thought was their heart’s desire.  In other words, we wished for the wrong things and got every one of them.

So then, let’s ask the hard question: Is this passage condemning of homosexuals?  Well, yes, and no.  Yes, it presents homosexual relationships as contrary to God’s design and describes individuals who pursue them as a function of their larger rejection of God’s righteousness as warranting His wrath.  On the other hand, Paul’s point in these words is not to call undue attention to any one group of people, but to present all those who have chosen to walk without end the path of sin as worthy of God’s wrath.  We wished for the wrong things and got every one of them.  So, if criticizing someone’s preferred method of sexual expression is discriminatory then, yes, this passage is in fact discriminatory.  But, that is not the purpose of this passage and someone needs to be either seeking offense or actively involved in any one of the ungodly lifestyles mentioned in order to be offended by what is said here.   With that said, we must acknowledge that as a church universal, we have generally not done a good job of lovingly making this case.  In fact, we have generally done a pretty terrible job at showing love to people who struggle with (or embrace) homosexuality.  We have let opponents of the faith set the interpretive tone for passages like this one and used them to condemn and ostracize in unloving ways people who are created in God’s image and thus have the potential to bring Him incredible amounts of glory.  If we, then, are going to strive to love according to our definition a group of people who our cukture identifies as not only not sinful, but in fact righteous when we totally disagree with that assessment, with all the grace of the Spirit and all the wisdom of the word, how do we go forward on this?

Well, given the amount of emotion involved in this issue and the staggering amount of anger which has been caused by unloving responses of those who claim the mantle of Christian (even honestly) towards those who those who have or are dealing with homosexuality, the first thing we need to do is apologize and repent.  We need to repent for all the times we have personally taken part in offensive stereotyping of folks who deal with this.  Anytime we have told or laughed at or even listened to a joke demeaning of people dealing with homosexuality we have been guilty of unloving behavior.  We have mentally moved these folks from the category of “person “to the category of “object to be scorned.”  This is different only in kind from the times we reduce another person to an object of lust.  We also need to repent, though, for the church universal.  The fact is that the church as a whole, at least in this culture, has done a pretty poor job ministering to people dealing with homosexuality and its frequent, tragic physical consequences.  Instead of loving and walking alongside these folks as we might do with someone struggling through a different area of sin, because of the social stigmas involved, Christians have resorted to ostracism, harsh condemnation, ridicule, and a variety of other unloving acts.  Part of the reason people who deal with homosexuality seem to hate the church so much is that they’ve been given good reason to do so.  All this is to say that the first thing we need to do in constructing a good response is to clear the table of the failed ones of the past.

The second part of constructing our Biblically sound response to homosexuality is that we must understand both what the Bible says about it and what is doesn’t say.  The Bible has been construed in some circles to offer an overwhelmingly and unnecessarily condemning portrait of people dealing with homosexuality.  In 2008 a practicing homosexual man sued two major Christian book publishers because the Bibles they were producing caused him emotional and even physical distress.  So what does the Bible actually say about it?  Well, we have seen its response in one place.  There is one place where the actual word is used, two where it is explicitly mentioned but not by name, and one where, like here in Romans, it is implicit.  It is mentioned explicitly in 1 Corinthians 6:9 in the context of a laundry list of lifestyles incompatible with life in the kingdom of God.  The other three references are all in the Old Testament.  The first is in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 where it is implied in a narrative whose purpose is to paint a picture of the vileness of the citizens of the two infamous cities.  The other two are a chapter apart in Leviticus 18 and 20.  The context of both of these references is a list of behaviors common among Israel’s pagan neighbors, many of which are aberrant sexual practices, in which the Israelites are not to participate.  The plainest reading of these texts suggests the Bible is pretty clear that homosexual sexual acts run counter to God’s intention for His people and are in fact sinful.

Yet this only answers half the question here.  Let’s talk for just a minute about things the Bible doesn’t say.  It does not single out homosexuality with a greater frequency than any other sinful behavior.  It does not portray folks who have experimented with it as somehow even more undeserving of the kingdom than anyone else.  Yes, the verse in 1Corinthians 6 does mention both sexual immorality and homosexuality, but it also mentions adulterers and the bigger picture is a condemnation of all sexual practices that deviate from God’s design.  The Bible presents homosexuality as simply another of the many sinful practices in which people who are worshiping something other than God (like their own desires) engage and which is harmful to the soul and the body.  And let me be more specific while avoiding being explicit: what the Bible condemns is the sexual exchange between people who are of the same gender.  It does not condemn the people.  It does not condemn the struggle of desire.  People only stand condemned because of their determination to be the final arbiter of right and wrong (idolatry).  The struggle with desire is only sinful when it gives way to lust which the Bible roundly denounces regardless of the object of the lust.  Active participation in homosexuality like active participation in any other kind of sin reduces someone from glorious humanity to a mere animal which knows only immediate fulfillment of every desire.  It involves a person who has, at least momentarily, ceased to worship God and is instead worshiping some other idol.  The Bible makes no differentiation here.  It only stands for righteousness and against sin.  And, by the way, our position is not to condemn, but to love those who are walking such a path; to intentionally work to see them become more fully who God designed them to be.

Third, we need to dispel (in brief and incomplete fashion) some of the current cultural positions about the nature of homosexuality and those who deal with it.  Let me say on this that we could not possibly give answer to every voice on this issue in this format.  My goal is to hit some highlights and in the process establish the beginning of a framework we can use to address others.   One of the first to address here is the debate of nature versus nurture.  Are people born homosexual or does something in their environment trigger it?  This is about as tough an ancillary issue as there is on this topic.  This is where a large swath of the emotions lie for the friend and family members of people dealing with homosexuality in some way.  If, as we have just covered, we are going to conclude that homosexual sex acts are in fact a sin, then in truth this question is simply another form of a much larger one: Why does God allow evil in the world?  We’re not going to answer that question this morning.  We can, however, quickly think through some of the relevant issues.  Given our current base of knowledge of human psychology and genetics I believe the answer to whether people are born or made with homosexually oriented desires is a very tentative yes.  A variety of studies have shown that environment and life experiences can and do play a role in whether or not a person seeks to meet their desire of love and sexual fulfillment through homosexual relationships.  On the other side of this, although there are a few scientists hard at work, I do not believe they will ever identity a “gay” gene.  Our genetic codes do not make, and thus release us from, sinfulness.  (If such a discovery should be made, by the way, the abortion debate and the current breakdown of which political party is on which side of the issue will change radically.)   That said, we live in a sin-broken world and there is such a thing as generational sin.  Things like alcoholism and anger management issues can be observed in multiple generations of a single family.  In His current commitment to limiting evil without limiting human freedom until the time for making all things right comes God allows such sins to dog people from birth onward.  They become issues akin to Paul’s thorn in the flesh which God does not remove but instead allows to remain so that He can receive more glory when the person faithfully follows Him in spite of the nagging issue.  With all of this said, could homosexual desires fit into this category?  In honesty I don’t see why not.  But, this means nothing as far as the normalization of such desires in the same way the person who is born with an overly active affinity for alcohol is not morally justified in becoming an alcoholic.  So in sum here, perhaps some nature and certainly some nurture play roles in whether or not a person struggles with this issue, but this neither impacts the sinfulness nor our duty to show such a person the full and total love of Christ.

The nature versus nurture debate is surely one of the biggest cultural discussions related to this issue, but there are two other high points I want to touch on so let’s hit them quickly.  First, this is a place where love is misinterpreted and sought in the wrong places just like what we talked about last week.  The Biblical model is heterosexual monogamy in the context of marriage and any deviation from that is sinful.  We must be able to talk about this in rational ways, without any harsh condemnations, so that we can shine light into the darkness as Paul said in Ephesians 5.  Also,homosexuality is no more healthy (or unhealthy, for that matter) expression of love than seeking love as sex on the whim of a fleeting desire.  Remember: love and sex are not the same thing.  Loving someone is not the only prerequisite necessary for sex to be morally positive and healthy in its expression.  (And with teen icons like Justin Bieber voicing the contrary opinion, we have our work cut out for us in proclaiming otherwise.)   Lastly on this, let me address the place of pursuing legal channels as a means to seeing our worldview broadly recognized as rational.  If the only goal for someone is that homosexuality be recognized as mainstream, normative, positive, and protected through legislative channels, then there is clearly not much room for positive discussion.  In this case, we as good Christian citizens in a liberal democracy have a duty to use the legal means available to us to uphold our worldview.  But, let us operate with great care here lest we find ourselves winning a battle while losing the war.

Fourth and most importantly, how shall we as a church respond to people dealing with this?  We have spoken very abstractly so far about homosexuality as an issue.  But as I said near the beginning of our conversation, this is not a neutral, impersonal issue.  All of us will at some time or another have to deal with real people who are really working through these kinds of issues.  Furthermore, we will have to work through them in the context of the church as just because someone embraces or struggles with homosexuality does not automatically make them give up on their faith.  One of my mom’s closest childhood friends is a practicing homosexual and recently graduated with his Master of Divinity (the same degree I have) from Harvard.  One of my good friends through junior high and high school is openly homosexual and gladly counts himself my brother in Christ (an estimation I share, by the way).  So what is our way forward?

Well, first and foremost, we are to be a people driven by the love of Christ.  We are to intentionally seek to see every person to whom we have the opportunity to minister become more reflective of who God created them to be.   Individuals who deal with homosexuality are created in the image of God just as those who do not.  They are fully human beings and are worthy of every amount of respect they can be given.  The same goes for any person struggling with any sin. That we would treat someone struggling with this particular area of sin any differently from anyone else only reveals our duplicitousness and as I said before we should repent of this.  As a church, then, I offer this before you as a good place for us to stand.  Because the Biblical model for sexual conduct is heterosexual monogamy in the context of marriage, this must be our expectation for every member without distinction.  If you are married, remain absolutely faithful to your spouse.  If you are not married, remain absolutely celibate until you are.  There is no thing discriminatory about that.  Is someone struggling with homosexual desires welcome in our midst to worship and serve with us?  Absolutely.  Is someone who is an open, practicing homosexual welcome in our midst to worship and serve with us?  Absolutely.  How about serving in various ministry capacities?  That depends on the position.  When it comes to ministry teams like the Moonshine Ladies or Sonshine Ladies or Carpenter’s Sons or even teams associated with things like the Easter Village coming up in April, yes.  Our standard of morality will not change and we will lovingly help such a person live up to the standard.  As for a teaching position or a position working with kids and youth, probably not without ample evidence of the individual’s intention to not only live up to our moral standard but also dedication to proclaiming in word and in deed the theology acceptable to the rest of the body.  Where someone, anyone, does not live up to these standards and either is an active member of the body or is merely journeying for a time in the same direction we are, we who are walking the straight and narrow path must not fail at love.  Just because a fellow member of the body or fellow traveler on the road to the kingdom seeks love and the fulfillment of desire in inappropriate ways does not let us off the hook for loving them.

Our approach as a body must be to be bearers of the love of Christ with everyone we encounter.  Our working assumption is that each person God calls here (be that happenstance or our intentionally inviting them) is spiritually gifted (or will be once they cross the line of faith) by Him in such a way that we cannot succeed in our mission fully without their contribution.  If we would exclude anyone from this simply because their particular struggle with sin carries a higher level of social stigma than some others, shame on us.  Our call is to a loving righteousness that sees people, including ourselves, made complete in God’s image.  Let us operate well on this principle and together advance the kingdom in each direction we face.