July 15, 2012

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



Romans 1:18-2:1

We’ve all endured a hot week, and I don’t think the forecast calls for it to cool down any time soon.  Think we can endure a series of sermons on topics that are sure to raise the temperature in here a few degrees?  These are the kind of topics preachers are encouraged to avoid.  It doesn’t matter what you say, you’re just going to make people mad.  And yet my faith tells me there are no topics that are off limits for followers of Jesus.  In fact, Christians of all people need to be engaged most of all in the controversial questions of the day.  There may be faiths that teach their followers to withdraw from the world and not to engage the big questions of the day, but the Christian faith is not one of them.

Let’s start with a couple of understandings.  First, my purpose in this series is not to tell you what Christians are supposed to believe on these topics.  I will tell you what I believe.  Some of you will agree and others of you won’t.  We all have opinions, but I think we need to be very careful about saying that any of our opinions is the “Christian” opinion.  Roberta Witteman shared some of her wisdom in our current newsletter.  “Preserve an open mind on all debatable questions.”  We’re going to be looking at debatable questions in this series.  It’s OK for us to disagree.

Second, when Christians disagree it’s important that we of all people do so without being disagreeable.  It’s important that we respect other opinions and especially the people who hold other opinions.  Even people we know for sure have to be misguided, are every bit as sincere as we are and in the fullness of time, who’s to say that we won’t come to see that they were right and we were wrong?

This is a United Methodist church and you need to know if you don’t know it already that we are one of the churches that is on the fence when it comes to homosexuality.  Some churches, the United Church of Christ was among the first, have declared themselves to be fully behind gays and lesbians, including their rights to marriage and ordination.  Other churches, and I could name most any of the more conservative churches, have been clear in their view that those involved in homosexuality have chosen a sinful path and must be called to repentance.

The UnitedMethodistChurch has not declared itself one way or the other.  We are on the fence.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say that we are standing with feet planted on both sides of the fence.  We have rules against “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals being ordained and serving as pastors.  Any of us as pastors could lose our ordination by officiating at a same-sex marriage.  And yet at the same time, and especially out here in the western United States, we have about as open and welcoming and accommodating a stance toward gays and lesbians as you could imagine.  Every four years at General Conference there is a huge push to delete the negative references to homosexuality in our Book of Discipline.  Every four years so far, including this year, this effort has gone down to defeat.  But one significant sentence has been added.  “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends.”

What churches write in their official books is one thing.  What God has inspired in the Bible is on a whole different level.  Whenever we come to a debatable question, homosexuality included, the Bible is our ultimate source of authority.

So, what does the Bible say about homosexuality?  Every single reference, today’s passage from Romans included, is negative.  I think we just need to get that out there.  Much has been written, and I think I’ve pretty much read it all, trying to interpret these negative passages in creative ways that make them sound less negative.  A lot of smart people have put a lot of thought into these newer interpretations, but I’ve never found them particularly convincing.  It’s much better, I think to simply stipulate, if I may use legal language, that the Bible is not very friendly to the gay and lesbian cause.  Heterosexuality is held up throughout the Bible as the norm.  Marriage, once we get past the polygamy of the early Old Testament, is clearly defined as between one man and one woman.

But what did Jesus say about homosexuality?  Christians always give the teachings of Jesus the highest authority as they compare what the Bible says in various places.  If Jesus spoke a clear word on this subject, I think most of us would go with Jesus.  Even if Leviticus says something else.  But Jesus said absolutely nothing about homosexuality.  For that matter, he said nothing about abortion, immigration, or Mormonism either.  Which is I suppose partly why these are “hot topics”.  Jesus didn’t settle them for us.

Today’s text from Romans is one that is seldom read in worship.  It didn’t make the lectionary.  Some would consider it hate speech.  As I read it again Monday, I began to wonder if we should even read it today.  Yes, there are parts of the Bible that probably never should be read in worship.  But we must never run away from a Biblical passage just because it is difficult.

We find in this passage “natural theology”.  Natural theology says that we can learn about God by looking at nature.  We don’t have to read the Bible to know God’s ways.  We can see God in what God has made.  So we have no excuse.  In other words, no one can use the excuse that they never had an opportunity to read the Bible.  Or that they belonged to a different religion.  Or they were raised with no religion.

All human beings can see this world that God has created.  We see the awesomeness of creation and we say there has to be a God.  An awesome God.  We see the orderliness of creation and we say that God has to be trustworthy.  For there are laws of nature that govern creation.  We see the beauty of creation and we say that God must appreciate beauty.  And God must love us because God chose to give us more than the bare minimum for survival.  God didn’t have to give us sunsets and mountains and flowers and waterfalls, but God gave them to us anyway.  We see the cruelty of nature — animals killing and eating other animals for survival — and we realize natural theology has its limits.  But Paul’s argument is that nature gives all people, not just Bible believing people, guidance on how we are supposed to live.  So when we live in a different way, a way that is contrary to nature, we have no excuse.  We should have known better.

Homosexual acts were illegal in Idaho as recently as 2003.  That’s the year of the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas that invalidated all such state laws.  Remember what homosexual acts were called in these laws?  They were “crimes against nature.”  The language came from Romans chapter 1.

God created us male and female to have sexual relations with the opposite sex.  That’s the way life goes on.  So when “women exchange natural relations for unnatural,” and when “men give up natural relations with women and [become] consumed with passion for one another”, something has gone haywire with God’s created order.  That’s the way Paul sees it, anyway.  Homosexuality is unnatural and therefore homosexuality is wrong.

Paul feels strongly about this.  He’s not straddling any fence.  He’s not trying to have it both ways.  He’s letting us know what he really thinks.  But then I’d have to say Paul gets a little carried away.  He suggests that gay people aren’t just guilty of crimes against nature.  They’re also guilty of a whole laundry list of other offenses: “envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossip, slander, foolishness, ruthlessness.”  It gets a little bizarre.  Especially when he says that “those who do such things deserve to die.”  And then in the very next verse he says, that if we judge other people we are condemning ourselves because we are doing the very same thing (Rom 2:1).  It’s one of the most judgmental passages in the Bible and it ends with a warning against being judgmental.  No wonder the lectionary people left it out!

One way to interpret this passage is to say we’re all guilty of sin.  There’s something on that laundry list that snags every one of us.  And the wages of sin is death.  So we’re all saved by grace.  But one particular sin is certainly singled out for special scorn.  The sin of homosexuality.  Paul would say it’s a very serious sin.  Jesus didn’t say anything at all.  What are we to say?

Most of us have lived through a lot of changes in the way we think about this subject.  A few of us are old enough to remember when “gay” had a whole different meaning.  It used to be very rare, almost unheard of, for people to openly acknowledge their homosexuality.  It was a deep, dark secret that a lot of people succeeded pretty well in keeping.  It used to be fairly common to say you didn’t know any gay people.  Well, you probably did, but they weren’t talking about it.  Now I think just about all of us knows friends or relatives or certainly celebrities who have decided that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of.  It used to be assumed that gay people choose to be gay.  They are going against their nature, as Paul says.  Now we’ve found that homosexuality is a deviation from the normal but not necessarily a deviation from the natural.  It’s pretty well established by now that most gay people were born gay and didn’t choose to be gay.

There’s that phenomenon we often hear about of people who have negative opinions of Congress but they still like their particular congressperson.  It’s kind of that way with homosexuality.  Many of us who grew up with negative opinions about being gay have now met some real life gay people and discovered that they’re OK.  They’re just people.  For whatever reason their sexual attraction is wired a little differently from the rest of us.  But they certainly don’t seem like depraved sinners or pathetic losers, which is the stereotype many of us grew up with.

For those of us who are heterosexual, I think it’s a helpful exercise to imagine what it would be like if we weren’t.  What would it be like to feel an attraction to the same sex that’s as powerful as yours to the opposite sex?  What would it be like to be scorned because that’s just the way you are?  What would it be like to be a Christian and to read from the Bible a passage like the one we read today?

Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, but he did say a lot about how we are to treat people.  He said to, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (Mt 7:12).  I think at a minimum that’s how we need to treat our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors.  You would want to be treated as an equal, with respect and common courtesy.  Treat them the same.

I must say that there have been changes in our attitudes toward sexuality in the last 50 years that have not been good.  I think it’s a good thing we’re more accepting of homosexuality than we used to be.  I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re more accepting of sex outside of marriage, or outside a marriage-like commitment to a one person.  I’m concerned with the messages that our culture seems to be communicating to our children.  Messages like gay is “cool”.  Or experimentation with gay sex is trendy.  Or that anything goes when it comes to sex.  There are no limits.  There is no morality.  Sex is one of God’s greatest gifts, but like all God’s gifts it can be perverted into something that can cheapen and destroy lives.

The message our churches need to be communicating is a counter-cultural message.  Not “gay is bad” but “commitment is good.”  C.S. Lewis had it right when he said, “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”  Well, we laugh at sexual purity and then we are shocked to find sexual filth everywhere.

I don’t think Paul would be OK with a same-sex couple in a loving, committed, long-term relationship.  I don’t know that for sure, but I can’t quite picture Paul as the grand marshal at a gay pride parade.  But somehow, even though I don’t know this for sure either, I can picture Jesus giving such a couple his blessing.  Or if not his blessing, at least being kind to them.

There was a message on the sign outside RoseCityParkUnitedMethodistChurch in Portland that went viral recently.  That’s the church I served for 11 years.  It said, “GOD PREFERS KIND ATHEISTS OVER HATEFUL CHRISTIANS.”  There have been too many hateful Christians in the way they have treated gays and lesbians.  God wants us at least to be kind.

Tony Campolo tells of a friend of his who conducted a service for a man who had died of AIDS.  Other pastors were refusing to take the service.  So he took it.

There were about 25 in attendance.  All gay men.  All through the service they were looking down at the floor.  There was no eye contact whatsoever.  They traveled to the cemetery and it was the same there.  The pastor pronounced the benediction and started to walk away, but something told him to come back.  The men were still standing there.  He asked them if there was anything he could do.

One of the men said, “Yes, I never go to church.  Used to, but not anymore.  The only thing I really liked about church was when they read from the Bible.  You didn’t read the 23rd Psalm.  I thought they always read that at funerals.  Could you read the 23rd Psalm?”

He did.  Then another man said, “There’s a passage in John chapter 3 about being born again.  I like that one.”

He read that, too.  Someone else asked for Romans 8, the part that says nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Tony Campolo heard that story from his pastor friend and he said it made him hurt inside.  He hurt inside because here were men who wanted to hear the Bible but wouldn’t step foot inside a church.  They thought church people despised them.  And why did they think that?  Because in way too many cases church people did despise them.

We have different views on this topic.  It is a “debatable question.”  But in the end this really isn’t a topic.  It really isn’t some thing to discuss and argue about.  Really we’re talking about people.  And so really at a minimum we need to do what it says in our Book of Discipline.  “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends.”


Dear God, you know we have strong feelings on this subject.  You know that whatever opinion we might hold, we are sitting with others right here in this sanctuary who feel just as strongly the other way.  We humbly seek your wisdom and your guidance.  You care about moral purity.  We believe that.  But we also believe that you care about how we treat each other.  We pray that you will continue to illumine our minds and bend our hearts toward your will in this matter.  In the meantime, help us to be gentle with one another.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord,   Amen.