Two years into our church plant on campus at the University of Waterloo, I decided it was time to tackle this hottest of all hot button topics. It was a university campus, after all, and one of the main features of our growing church was that it was a place where students could think about faith with critical minds and without being afraid of the consequences. In my preaching, I wanted to intentionally lead our church into challenging territory as a demonstration that Christian faith was relevant and could speak to whatever social issues you threw its way. So I set a date—November 27, 2000—and launched into my preparation for what would become the most complex and consequential sermon I had written to date.
(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)
I was 23 years old and had never heard someone talk about homosexuality in a church setting, at least not in any detail, so in many ways I was starting from scratch. The primary source for my research into what the Bible had to say was a book that had recently been released by the scholar, Stanley Grenz: Welcoming But Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality. In this book, I was first introduced to a handful of obscure Greek words that seemed to be at the heart of the debate. Perhaps of more importance, though, Grenz’s genuine compassion and theological integrity inspired me to find a way to talk about this theme in a way that would acknowledge the terrible job the church had done engaging questions around homosexuality while continuing to speak clearly about what the Bible had to say.
The manager of the theatre our student church rented every Monday night had a number of friends who were gay, and knowing this made me quite nervous during my preparation. But it also kept me honest. Picturing him standing there off to the side as he often did during our services pushed me to prepare my sermon with extra diligence. In the end, I gave my sermon the title, “The Homophobic Church,” partly for the shock value, but also because I wanted this to be a sermon that was first and foremost about how we, as people who claimed to be ambassadors for Jesus, needed to do a better job when it came to how we thought and talked about this issue, to say nothing of how we treated those with a homosexual orientation.
My sermon began with an acknowledgment that the Christian church as a whole had judged homosexuality as the sin above all others and had ostracized the gay community as a result. I shared a number of quotes from people who were struggling with guilt as a result of their sexual orientation and from those who had written the church off altogether.
From there, I explored Paul’s introduction in Romans chapter one where he argues that people had long been exchanging the natural for the unnatural, putting themselves in opposition to God. I talked about how sin is something that affects every single one of us and that if we think we can point our fingers at others before we deal with our own shortcomings, then we’ve got a lot to learn. “Our challenge is to see things from God’s perspective,” I said, “even if that means that some things that seem natural or preferable to us may turn out to be unacceptable in God’s sight.”
I referred to the common phrase, ‘Hate the sin but love the sinner,’ using myself as a reference point: There are things in my own life that I hate and that I know keep me from God, but which do not cause me to hate myself. Then it was time to dive deeper into the Bible: “There can be no picking and choosing with respect to scripture,” I said, reading from the various parts of the Bible that spoke most clearly to the sin of homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9).
“Christianity is not about believing a set of religious values that make sense in our time,” I continued. “It’s about exploring, accepting, and applying what God has shown us to be the best way.”
I went on to cast a vision for Christian sexual ethics, reminding those gathered in the theatre that night that we need to come to God on His terms and not our own.
As my sermon weaved its way toward a conclusion, I emphasized the mercy of Jesus—that he had no prerequisites, but invited everyone to come to him just as they were, and that he was extending the same invitation to us today. I said that it would be dangerous to take one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing to follow at all costs, and that Jesus asks us to lay everything down and follow him.
In closing, I presented the Christians in the room with a challenge: to avoid looking at someone living in a gay lifestyle and identifying them by their sexual orientation, but instead, to see them as an individual who was created by and is loved by God. And for those who were living in a gay lifestyle, my challenge was to avoid identifying themselves by their sexual orientation, but instead as an individual who was created by and is loved by God.
At the end of the night, I saw the theatre manager waiting for me at one of the entrances. I felt good about the content as well as how I had communicated, but I was still nervous that he would be offended because I had called homosexuality a sin. Needless to say, it was a great relief for me to hear him say that he really appreciated the way I approached the topic and that he thought I had done a great job with such a tricky theme.
To be honest, I don’t really remember much about how people reacted to what I shared that night, but I know that the overall response was positive. There seemed to be an appreciation for my willingness to tackle a controversial topic and for the way I was able to balance the truth of scripture with God’s love for people.
In the years to come, I would occasionally return to the theme in my teaching, but it was never something front-and-centre for myself or for our church. In fact, more than a decade later, in 2012, I spoke a message based on the notes from my first sermon on the theme. I just read over my notes from this more recent sermon and was struck by how incredibly similar my approach was, even with all of those years in between. The only piece that stuck out as being truly unique was my acknowledgement that there were well-meaning people who believed differently than I did on this, and that while I was far from being able to wrap my head around it all, it seemed important that we find a way to understand one another better.
Around that time, my wife started a new job where a co-worker was in a same-sex relationship, and, in fact, ended up getting married shortly after Melissa started working there. This raised all sorts of questions for us as we reflected on the different ways that my wife’s co-workers responded to the wedding announcement and the invitations that followed. One person happily accepted the wedding invitation without giving it much thought, another wrote a thoughtful letter explaining why she couldn’t support the relationship by attending the ceremony, while a third declined without an explanation. And they were all Christians. (The bride-to-be mentioned that, having a church background herself, she appreciated the thoughtful letter and understood that it wasn’t something that everyone could accept.)
This whole situation led to plenty of conversations between Melissa and myself, trying to wrap our heads around which of these responses was the most appropriate—which was the most ‘Christian’. In time, she became good friends with her lesbian co-worker, which caused some dissonance as she genuinely loved this person but was struggling with how to respond to the life she was living. It was the first time either of us had developed a friendship with someone who was gay.
At one of their workplace Christmas parties, I sat across from this newlywed couple, which was the first time I had interacted socially with a same-sex couple. Typing this now, I can’t help but think about how strange it is that church folks like myself can have such strong opinions about an issue like homosexuality without ever having met a single homosexual person. So I was experiencing some dissonance of my own that night, finding it quite normal and natural to engage in conversation, and yet somehow feeling like I should be sick about it all, that it should have been convincing me of just how awful and terrible this lifestyle really was.
(Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about language. Some of the words and phrases you’ll come across in my writing are not words and phrases that I would use today. As you read on, you’ll probably notice some subtle shifts, but it’s important for me to point this out, both as a reminder that I have refused to edit out the ‘uncomfortable’ parts of my writing, and to encourage all of us to have patience with people as they grow in their own understanding of what language is and is not appropriate.)
It was maybe a year or two later that I ran into my wife’s co-worker in an unexpected setting. Her fledgling marriage was on the rocks and she was dealing with some other significant challenges at the same time. Melissa was one of the first people she opened up to about her struggles, which says something about how their friendship had developed since they started working together. I was walking through the lobby of our church one Sunday morning and saw her come in through the front doors. She had never been to our church before, and she had never even suggested that she would come, so her appearance was quite out of nowhere.
I gave her a hug and told her it was great to see her. She went on to tell me that she had actually started driving to another church that she attended from time to time, but felt she heard God telling her to go to Elevation. So she turned around and headed in our direction without really knowing why. I told her that I had some running around to do before the service started, but that I’d come find her again so we could sit together. I quickly texted Melissa to let her know that her friend was there, but she was home sick and didn’t have the energy to make it out of the house, so when the service started, it was her co-worker and I standing in the pew together.
If I had experienced dissonance at the work Christmas party the year before, then I should have been absolutely overwhelmed by it when a real, live lesbian was standing next to me in church! But the only thing I was overwhelmed by was the distinct impression, “This is good; this is right.”
I wasn’t quite sure what the thoughts running through my mind meant, though. Was it good that she was there so she could be changed in God’s presence? Or was it good that she was there, period? The worship that morning was powerful and my sermon was on health and healing. Knowing her story, I couldn’t have imagined a better morning for her to have been there. Over time, she moved out of the city and her and Melissa eventually grew apart, but that morning was a significant experience for me, standing there in our church’s sanctuary worshipping beside someone who was living in a same-sex relationship—and all I could feel was love and compassion.