Common Ground in Controversial Conversations
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Today’s sermon addresses a request from one of our young adults to hear a sermon on the Church and the LGBT community. I have to admit that I struggled with knowing what to preach about because it’s a really big topic. I drew up a word map and realized that in order to address this topic in its fullness, I would need about 17 weeks. Still, this is important to talk about and so I’m going to focus on a small part of the conversation. And really, what I want to talk about is conversation; how to engage in difficult and controversial conversations. It seems like we are often hearing about denominations splitting because they can’t agree. In our own denomination, we’ve been having these conversations over the past few years and it’s clear that people come down on all sides. So, what I want to talk about today is not necessarily a theology of same-sex relationships, although I will address aspects of this theology, but I want to look at how Christians can engage in the conversation around the LGBT+ community and with the community. What I see so often is two sides that dig into what they believe. Churches split and the unity of the Spirit is sacrificed so that each side can maintain its point of view. The Christian thing to do is to engage in these conversations. There are two ways to use the Bible in conversation, one is to use it shut things down. A response like “well the Bible says it’s wrong” is a conversation-ender. The other way is to use the Bible to open up a dialogue. It’s actually engaging with, as opposed to a dismissal of another’s beliefs. It’s actually being willing to listen to the other side, whatever that other side is. It’s important to have a biblical understanding of what God says about relationships, and it’s important that we are searching God’s word for clarity on these topics. We want to speak the truth. But we are also called to be united and to maintain the unity of the Spirit. We have the example of Jesus who spoke the truth unapologetically, yet, he also knew how to engage in a conversation so that God was glorified. And this should always be our goal; not to prove that we are right, but to see God glorified and to see those that we are in conversation with, move one step closer to him. So, with that in mind, let’s dive into our topic.
I chose this passage in Luke for today, not because it has anything to do with same-sex attraction, but because it shows us how Jesus deals with “the other”. “The other” in this story is a man named Zacchaeus. He’s known as a sinner. His profession is tax collector and tax collectors made their money by extorting more money from the people than they were required to. His sin is that he’s become wealthy at the expense of his people. Because of his profession, he’s a social outcast. Hearing that he is despised should tell us that he is a prime candidate for the saving grace of God. Zacchaeus, sinner that he is, he wants to see Jesus, but he can’t. He can’t see him because there’s a crowd and Zacchaeus is short and people are getting in his way. Still, he is eager, and that eagerness possesses him to climb into a tree so that he can get a good look at this Jesus-fellow he’s heard so much about. And Jesus sees him. He sees him and he calls him by name and tells him to get down because he’s coming over. This, of course, horrified the Pharisees who were there. As a group, they were committed to upholding the purity of the law. To eat with another person was something very intimate so they believed that eating with sinners was defiling oneself. Yet Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus gladly. We don’t know what happens after that, we just have this abrupt proclamation from Zacchaeus that he is going to pay back 4 times what he has taken from his people. He’s going to make restitution; he’s going to give justice to those he has wronged. And Jesus tells him that salvation has come to this house today, he says that Zacchaeus is part of the family. Luke concludes the story by saying that the Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost.
I notice a few things in this story. 1) Jesus didn’t address the sin of Zacchaeus. And his sin was clear, he was taking advantage of people for profit. 2) Jesus calls him by name. 3) Jesus goes to his house. He lets Zacchaeus host him and show him hospitality.
What we’re looking at this morning is how can Christians engage in the LGBT conversation. We’re going to talk about some differences in beliefs – namely sin and boundaries and desire. But I want to stress that engaging in conversation requires listening. Not listening with the intent of discrediting someone but really listening with the intent of understanding them. This is an area where we all need to do better.
Who is a Sinner?
When we do engage in this conversation, when we are committed to listening and having a dialogue, it’s good to know where we agree rather than where we disagree. And this might be difficult because the Christian worldview is unique. It’s not popular and it teaches suffering and self-denying love. We practice self-denial because of what the Bible teaches about how sin affects us.
This brings up the question of “who is a sinner?”. The Bible teaches us, that we are all sinners because we are born into sin. We start off from a posture of turning away from God. We’re not sinners because of our sexuality but sin does affect our sexuality. It doesn’t matter who we are or whether we go to church, we all start off on an even playing field when it comes to sin. We don’t need to know this so that we feel bad about ourselves, we need to know this so that we understand our need for God. We need to know that we are sinners so that when Jesus says to us “I am coming to your house” we scamper down from whatever tree we’re holed up in, and we go with him. We’ve just finished a series in the book of John and we’ve heard the gospel writer’s definition of sin; it’s to refuse to enter into a relationship with God. The whole reason Jesus came to earth, is so that we could be in a relationship with God so that we can access our Creator. And the purpose of the Church is to demonstrate to the world what it means to live in relationship with God.
There has been a lot of hurt caused by people misunderstanding the answer to the question of “who is a sinner?”. We have people sitting in our pews who are same-sex attracted and feel that they are less or that there is something wrong with them and that’s not okay. My theology of marriage comes from Genesis 1-3, but from that text, I also get my theology of personhood that says that all people are made in the image of God and all people have the capacity to bear God’s glory. There is a sacredness to being human. Because of that sacredness, we follow the way of the One who created us.
Because God created us, we trust that He knows what is best for us. God gives us boundaries for sexuality, but even if you don’t subscribe to the whole Jesus thing, you probably agree that there should be boundaries on sexuality. What we see on TV might be a little different. The message that I see often is that someone who is sexually free has very few boundaries. They have sex as much as possible with as many people as possible, wherever it is possible. There are no boundaries. That’s not the design for sex that God put forth in the Bible. God gives us boundaries on sex-based on 1) how we were created and 2) for our protection and the protection of others. Even is someone doesn’t believe in God, they will agree that sex should have boundaries. The whole #MeToo movement is based on this belief that there are boundaries to sex. So, if we can agree that there should be boundaries, the next question is where do those boundaries come from? Do we all determine them for ourselves? Do we trust the lawmakers to do this? Or is there a higher standard that goes beyond human reasoning. If we all choose our own boundaries, then we’re in trouble because we will all come up with different boundaries. To some extent, we do rely on lawmakers to set those boundaries but still, we see that the most vulnerable who suffer while the powerful do as they please. The third option is to rely on the One who created us to determine the boundaries of sex. The Bible doesn’t teach us that sex is a right, it’s a gift.
Another way of approaching this conversation is to talk about desire. While culture talks about sexuality as identity, the Bible talks about it as desire. And our desires, are subject to sin. Our desires lead us away from God and we need to submit them to God so that they lead us back to Him. In the story of Zacchaeus, we see that his desire was for money. Lots of money. Yet after one encounter with Jesus, he realized his true desire. It wasn’t for wealth; it was to be seen and to be known and to be loved. We all have these desires, and the world will tell us that sex is the way to fulfill them. Zacchaeus knew when Jesus saw him, that this was what he was longing for. Our desires do not determine our identity. They might tell us how we are, but they don’t tell us who we are. Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he is a son of Abraham. He’s part of the family. He is the son of God and a brother of Christ.
You see, God wants us to DTR (determine the relationship). We need to decide whether or not we will invite Jesus into our home the way Zacchaeus did. And we have to decide who we serve? Ourselves? Our desires? Or the Risen Saviour who died so that we can live? I mentioned earlier that Christians come down on all sides of this conversation so I don’t want to make it seem like there is only one way of thinking here. But regardless of our view, we have to admit that the Bible’s message about sex is different than that of the world. I do believe that God created man and woman for each other to share in the most intimate relationship possible. I see this when I read Genesis when I look at the created order. I know that the Biblical view on sex is not a popular one. It teaches that sex is for marriage. It teaches that sex is about giving. God has given us an ethic for sex that most people won’t follow and that we as Christians will often fail to follow. And it’s so easy to question it, especially when we fail. This is where we need to trust that God knows what he’s doing. God created our bodies to fit together and to experience pleasure and we have to trust that he knows more than we do.
For us, who are Christians, we have to ask ourselves, if what God is telling me, doesn’t make sense, will I still follow him? If what God tells me goes against popular opinion, will I still submit to his will? This is the question of discipleship.
We’ve talked about boundaries and desire and sin which are all heavy topics. I want to finish by talking about transformation. The most powerful voice I’ve found to speak on the subject of the LGBT community and the Church is a woman named Rosaria Butterfield Dawson. She wrote a book called Secret Confessions of an Unlikely Convert, in which she tells her story. I won’t be able to do it justice in this short time, so please, look her up. She was a gay rights activist, an academic who taught English and Women’s studies and she was in a committed relationship with another woman. She didn’t like what Christians had to say about homosexuality so she decided to write a book about the religious right and their hatred of the LGBT community. In order to do this, she had to read the Bible. Rosaria describes reading the Bible and says that she encountered Jesus. During this time, a pastor reached out to her and she says that he got her attention because he was kind. She decided to use him as free research for her book and so she visited him and his wife and began what would become a deep friendship. They would talk about God and sexuality but what stood out to her is that they welcomed her into their home. They weren’t scared by her questions. She talks about having dinner with friends one night and her transgendered friend pointing out that reading the Bible was changing her. Eventually, Rosaria started attending this pastor’s church. She talks about her conversion as realizing that she needed to repent from her sin. And what was her sin? Pride. She realized that she had been proud; happy to do life without God and happy to find answers anywhere but in the Bible. But reading the Bible and encountering Jesus and encountering Christian hospitality, caused her to be transformed.
And that’s another piece of the conversation that we can engage in – what it means to be transformed. We see that after one encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was transformed. And we are not Jesus, so it’s going to take longer for us. When I hear people talk about their experiences of coming out, a phrase I often hear repeated is I just want to be accepted for who I am. This is a big struggle of feeling that no one really sees them and then the fear that when they are truly seen, they will be rejected. But Jesus says Come as you are. For all of us, regardless of sexuality, the invitation is to come. What we have to understand is that coming to Christ is a transformative endeavour. And I’m not talking about changing sexuality, I’m talking about a total and continual transformation. Romans 12 calls this transformation the renewing of our minds and its purpose is so that we can discern the will of God. Believers who are transformed can then enter into the active will of God and help bring about the Kingdom here on earth. When Zacchaeus was saved, he began working out the will of God on earth by pursuing justice.
We in the Church are called to be people of justice. Part of this justice-seeking is showing love to our LGBT neighbours; not just in words, but in actions. We are called to show hospitality by opening up our lives to others, particularly those that we consider “the other”. Otherwise, we are like the crowd in our passage, blocking the way for those who want to see Jesus, but can’t see past his people. By choosing to listen to and engage in conversation, we invite people into a relationship with us, and by extension to a relationship with Christ. That is our desire – that all would come to know the saving grace of God.