This morning’s scripture is from John 6:16-21.
When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
In November of 2000—so a little over 17 years ago—I gave a message called The Homophobic Church. It was the first time I had tackled this theme, and I spent more time preparing for that sermon than any before or since—until this week.
This morning’s sermon is about the intersection of same sex attraction and Christian faith. But it's also a sermon about what it means for us to be a church. I received an email from a member of our community a few weeks ago after they heard that I was going to be talking about this, and this is part of what the person said: “One thing I wanted to ask as you set out on your planning for this upcoming series is that you would speak about this topic the same way you would speak to people this affects. By that I mean, I hope you would use a heaping helping of empathy, to attempt to understand how your words would influence a person who is struggling in that regard.”
A good reminder, and certainly something that I've tried my best to keep in mind. Eugene Peterson writes about this theme, “The work of pastoring is extremely and essentially local. Each pastor is responsible to a particular people, a specific congregation. We often lose sight of that in an atmosphere so clouded by controversy and cluttered with loud voices.”
And so this morning's conversation is our conversation. It's not a conversation for a church down the street or a church across the country or church in another time, but it's our conversation. Which made me think I'd like to make a request of you as well, actually three little requests. The first one: for grace. I'm bound to say something you don't like or mispeak at some point. And I just ask you to imagine yourself standing up here talking about this in front of a few hundred people. I'd like to ask for 40 minutes of your time. If you hear something that bothers you, don't stand up and leave; don't shut off. Just stick with us through the end of the morning. And then I’d ask for patience as well. One of the things that I've realized over the last few weeks having conversations around this theme is that people want answers. They want to get to the finish line, and they want to get there fast. But I'm going to ask you to be patient because we're not getting there this morning. This morning’s sermon follows and is paired with last Sunday morning’s sermon. And it is also an introduction to conversations we're going to be having as a church community over the course of the next few weeks, and I'll explain more about that later.
So let's dive in.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast and I heard someone say, It's not easy to do diversity. Well, no kidding. I was thinking about it, and if our congregation were characterized by uniformity, then this would be easy, because uniformity leads to harmony, and therefore puppies and butterflies and all good things.
But when it comes to our beliefs about same sex attraction, we are a theologically diverse community. Of course, we're not completely diverse; we have many shared core beliefs and key values. In fact, the preamble to our Statement of Core Belief says, “Just because a group of people has chosen to gather around a common purpose doesn't mean they will always think alike. But at the end of the day, when it comes to those beliefs that are central to the Christian faith, we are of one heart and mind.”
Our recent survey showed just how strongly we hold these beliefs in common: beliefs that include an understanding of God as Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; belief that we were all created in the image of God, but also marred by sin; belief that salvation is a gift from God to humankind; that the church has a role of reconciling people and nations to God; that the Bible is God's Word to all humankind; that, in the future, God will bring about the complete eradication of evil and the final restoration of his creation on Earth.
Across these nine statements in our core beliefs, we had an average of 78 percent of people who strongly agreed and fully 94 percent of people who agreed, even with some reservations. That's a strong sense of agreement around the things that are core to our faith. And these shared beliefs play an important role in understanding who we are as a church.
Now, I'll say this up front, you may not be comfortable with some of the language in the survey that we used, but we did it because we wanted to see how our community has changed since the last time we did this in 2010. So I want to point out two of the questions that were asked on our survey and how we responded as a community. One of the questions asked for a level of agreement with the statement: “It is okay for Christians to participate in homosexual activity.” Ten percent of our community completely agreed, 28 percent generally agreed, 23 percent generally disagreed, and 39 percent completely disagreed. So overall, 38 percent of people agreed with that statement and 62 percent disagreed.
One of the other questions that we asked said, “Marriage should be defined as a union between one man and one woman without exception.” Thirty-eight percent completely agreed, 22 percent generally agreed, 17 percent generally disagreed, and 23 percent completely disagreed—a similar proportion to the last question—60% agreeing with that, and 40% disagreeing.
I also want to acknowledge that we got a lot of comments around this section of our survey—people not too happy that we forced you to choose either ‘agree’ or ‘disagree.’ Why wasn't there an unsure? Why wasn't there an unknown? I hate this question. Why are you asking me? Again, the 2010 survey didn't give you that option, so we wanted to see how things had changed over the time. One of the comments was typical of a number of the comments, it said, “Some of these questions are not so simple as to check a box.” Yes, we understand that.
Last weekend, when the Senior Youth were away at a retreat, I took Jude to the library. I told him to pick out a movie for us to watch and he chose Kong: Skull Island. Now, I'll just say as an aside: Melissa, at first, she didn't even come down for the first fifteen minutes of the movie, but by the end, she was on the edge of her seat! She's like, “Who's gonna win?!”
It's this ridiculous movie about these people who go to this island and they meet this hundred-foot high gorilla. But the real movie, at the end, at the climax, is Kong battling this giant lizard creature that crawls up from the core of the Earth. And they're battling and they're throwing these punches and they're biting each other! And I'm sitting there watching that, thinking, That's kind of like what we do with this issue. We have this epic battle; we are these mythical monsters, and one of them is called “faithfulness to the Bible,” and the other one is called “love for people.” And those ideas battle each other and they bite into each other. Or maybe it's “orthodoxy” versus “compassion,” or maybe it's “holiness” versus “integrity,” or maybe it's “2,000 years of church history” versus “what God is doing today.”
Now, conflict isn't a bad thing in and of itself, it's bound to happen in a diverse community, especially when we engage issues that matter deeply to us. But how we respond to conflict, how we engage one another, that will make all the difference. So let's start by looking at some of the things we should avoid, and then how we can engage our different beliefs around same sex attraction in a healthy and generative manner.
By default, in conflict mode we do whatever is necessary to make sure we win the fight. And what better way to win a fight in church than to open the Bible, right? So someone will open the Bible to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10—“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
There it is. But the response, perhaps: Well, I’ll see your Corinthians and I'll raise you a Romans. Romans 14:10, 13—”You then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way.”
Well, if you're gonna quote from Romans, you’ve got to start at the beginning, so let's go back to chapter one verses 26 to 27—“God gave them over to shameful lusts, even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”
Well, Paul is one thing, but how would Jesus respond? Perhaps as he did in Matthew 23:23-24—“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
Back and forth, a battle of epic proportions. Battle lines are drawn and you must pick a side: liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, affirming or non-affirming. And we love it when people are on our side. I got a couple of emails last summer—on July 12, exactly—and the emails said, “Have you heard the news?” Here's the headline for you: ‘Eugene Peterson on changing his mind about same sex issues.’
“I wouldn't have said this 20 years ago,” he said in an interview, “but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they'll probably just go to another church. So we're in a transition, and I think it's a transition for the best, for the good. I don't think it's something that you can parade, but it's not a right or wrong thing, as far as I'm concerned.”
The interviewer asked him, “If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?”
Peterson answered, “Yes.”
Well, this was big news! Eugene Peterson is a very influential evangelical thinker and writer. He translated the Bible into The Message for crying out loud! And so people were up in arms and a large chain of bookstores in the US threatened to pull his books from their shelves. You know, just two years earlier, another prominent evangelical leader, Tony Campolo, had made a similar shift in his thinking, so people were up in arms and wondering what was going to happen.
Well, July 13—the very next day—the headline was a little different: ‘Actually, Eugene Peterson does not support same sex marriage.’
In an interview, he said, “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything. When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment, but on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That's not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They'd be welcome at my table along with everybody else.”
The pressure to land on one side or another can be overwhelming. And so about a month after this debacle with Eugene Peterson, a number of prominent evangelical leaders and theologians and pastors issued something known as The Nashville Statement. It was a very clear articulation of the traditional biblical view of marriage, and they said, If you believe this, sign your name to it. And if you go to the website, you can scroll down and there are tons of names. You can get tendonitis in your wrist scrolling to read all of the names!
But the very next day some other lists came out. The Liturgists put out a list, a group called Christians Unite put a list and said, Well, if you believe this version, then sign your name to this, and a bunch of people did and you could get tendonitis in the other wrist scrolling down!
And if you're not willing to sign your name on a list, I read about a new organization that has just sprung up recently that is going to put your name on a list. They're called Church Clarity, and they are going through the websites of every possible church they can get their hands on, and they are giving them a grade. They are going to tell every church, This is what you are, and this is what you are.
So it's impossible for us to avoid this, isn't it? The eminent Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, writes, not about this issue, but about a similar one with wisdom that we can apply. He says, “I think what we badly need is a conversation between a host of different positions...in which we eschew mutual caricature and try to understand what 'fullness' means for the other. What makes me impatient are the positions that are put forward as conversation- stoppers: I have a three-line argument which shows that your position is absurd or impossible or totally immoral.”
You've heard them; maybe you've even used them: “It's right there in the Bible, period”—“It's a human rights issue, period.” But periods shut down conversations, and they only serve to escalate conflict. We have people here this morning who find themselves on a wide spectrum of beliefs around this question, and many of you see your own position as biblical and right. As Jordan Peterson said, “There's no discussing hard issues without conflict. The question is how you limit the conflict.”
If we don't limit the conflict, our diversity will lead us into conflict, and the conflict will end in division.
But our shared key values, especially Life Together and A Journey Mentality, offer a framework for dealing with diversity in a healthier and more honest manner. As Julia Galef, President of the Center for Applied Rationality, says, “Instead of thinking about the argument as a battle where you’re trying to win, re-frame it in your mind so that you think of it as a partnership, a collaboration in which the two of you together or the group of you together are trying to figure out the right answer.”
So what do we do? We've got diversity, we're going to face conflict—what if we applied understanding to our conflict?
You see, the best way to gain understanding is to learn to see things through the eyes of others. How familiar are you with the way others see this issue? I've had enough interaction around this issue in various contexts over the years to know that most people don't have a good understanding of the other side at all. Most people approach this by hammering a stake in the ground, marking out territory, and saying, This is where I'm at. And so I thought, for the benefit of those of you who are sitting here saying, What's the big deal? Why is this still an issue? I thought I would give a one sentence summary of what might be the historic Christian perspective on same-sex attraction: that, according to the Bible, marriage is a sacred relationship between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others, and that sexual intimacy outside of marriage, including same-sex acts, falls outside of God's design.
The passages read earlier from First Corinthians and Romans, they're right there, along with some others, so any Christian conversation about this issue has to wrestle honestly with them. We can't ignore passages like those, but we have to be honest with them. Honestly, how many of you know what these words are? They're Greek. The New Testament was written in Greek, and they’re words that intelligent scholars who land on both sides of the issue have a hard time identifying.
The first one is malakos; it generally means “effeminate.” The second is arsenokoites, which generally is interpreted as “men who sleep with males.” The second word, it’s hard to understand what it means because Paul made it up! There's actually no evidence in history that anyone used this word before him. And so when people look back and are trying to understand what he's talking about, they have to wrestle with the difficulty of these original languages.
And this matters because people often use the Bible to say something that it doesn't. It doesn't say that being attracted to someone of the same gender is a sin or an abomination. It doesn't say anything like that. And we need to be honest enough to acknowledge that. Now, we're going to have to wait until our interactive sessions in March to dive into more detail about what the Bible does say, but there is a ‘practicing’ element that I do have a hard time working around.
Now, there may be people here who are sitting here saying, Well, if the Bible is that obvious, then why is this an issue? Why don't we just say this is what it says? And so my one sentence summary of a progressive Christian perspective is: that the passages in question are either talking about forms of abusive non-consensual sex, or written without an understanding of sexual orientation, and so they can't possibly address consensual monogamous same-sex unions.
As one affirming pastor and author, Steven Chalke, writes, “I have formed my view, not out of any disregard for the Bible's authority, but by way of grappling with it and through prayerful reflection seeking to take it seriously.”
Neither stance rejects same-sex attracted individuals as people created in the image of God, and neither stance rejects the Bible as being authoritative and life-shaping; both seek to respond faithfully to an understanding of God’s heart for this issue.
In preparation for my first sermon back in 2000, I read a book called, Welcoming But Not Affirming, by Stanley Grenz. He was a brilliant theologian, and this book helped me argue intelligently and honestly for the traditional perspective. But in the years since, I've primarily focused on understanding other perspectives. There are a number of books that I've written about this theme—(That I've written about this theme? Yes, as a ghost writer!)—books that I have read about this theme, trying to understand how other people see this. I don't need to know more about how I see it, I need to understand, How are other people approaching this? You see, if you don't even know what the other side believes or why, then how can you be so sure that they're wrong? Don't we owe it to ourselves to listen and learn?
Part of my learning came back in 2011. I was watching a webinar about this issue where there were a bunch of Christian leaders on a panel talking, and I was kind of getting frustrated with it because I was like, They're just talking about the same things I've always heard; I want something new. And I actually put a comment—there was a little comment thread on the side—and I said, “I want to know how to handle this on the ground, as a pastor. I don't need these kinds of things; I need someone to talk to me about how to handle this on the ground.”
And this guy responded; he said, “I'd love to chat with you about this. Maybe we could like email back and forth.”
I was, like, “Awesome!” and so I exchanged emails with a guy named Justin Lee. I didn't know who Justin Lee was at the time, but he was the founder and director of an organization called The Gay Christian Network, trying to bring Christians who believe differently about this into a generative conversation around this issue. And so we started an email dialogue back and forth, we Skyped, and he actually even shared a manuscript of his book that hadn't yet been released to see what kind of feedback I had for it. It was a really good time of learning for me.
You see, the real issue for me was that my understanding of scripture and the teaching of the Christian church through history were at odds with an experience of sexual orientation that is very real for a lot of people. And I hate the thought of LGBT people (or anyone for that matter) thinking that I'm judgmental or hateful or ignorant, or that I’d value them or exclude them with some kind of malice, because it's not true. I went back and looked at my email dialogue with Justin; at one point he said, “I have to say that I think your approach to the issue is exactly right. I strongly believe that it's important for us as Christians to be able to discuss these things and be honest about what we read in Scripture, even when it's difficult for someone on ‘the other side’ to hear. I also believe that in the midst of our disagreements, we are called to love one another as Christ loves us.”
I want to read a brief paragraph from Preston Sprinkle’s book, People to Be Loved:
“I believe that every single Christian needs to think deeply about this issue. And since it is not an issue, but people, every Christian needs to listen to the stories of LGBT people. I think the fear is that if you listen to someone's story, it means you agree with all of their decisions and actions and that story. But we don't treat other people like this, do we? Counselors listen to those that come to them for help, doctors listen to patients, lawyers listen to clients, friends listen to their friends, if they are true friends. None of these listeners agree with everything they hear. Listening simply means that we care enough about the person to experience their life through reliving their story. And you can only do this if you listen.”
Well, this morning we're going to listen to the story of a member of our community. Eric, come on up.
Good morning, everyone. My name is Eric and I've been blessed to be a part of this community for the past three and a half years. And I'm glad to call this place home. I know a lot of you quite well, and many of you probably know at least a little bit about me. You probably know that I'm a worship leader in the church, maybe you know that I'm a classical musician, and a music educator. Some of you may think of me as a juggler or entertainer or avid cyclist or camping enthusiast. Or maybe you just see me as another millennial Christian hippie.
These things are all true and small pieces of who I am. But there's another part of my identity that many of you may not be aware of: that I am gay. And just like that, with the uttering of two little syllables, we feel the tension in the room rise. For some people here, this is not a big deal at all. Some people have brown hair, some people have blonde hair; some people are straight, some people are gay; What's the big deal?
For others, this is a very big deal. Some of you may feel upset, betrayed, confused, or just uncomfortable. I'd like to acknowledge the validity of all of these responses and feelings. But before we put our walls and defences up, I would just ask that you would take the time to listen to my story.
The first thing that many people ask me when they find out that I'm gay is, When did you first know that you were gay? And to be truthful, this is a very difficult question for me to answer. I don't remember a time in my life that I wasn't gay. So let’s start with grade five and six, an awkward time for a lot of kids.
I was at a small school site, in with essentially the same class since grade two. Then something strange started to happen: the boys started to take more of an interest in the girls in the class. And all of a sudden the girls noticed for the first time that there were boys in their class, but then there was me. I still had no interest in girls. I was, however, starting to look at the boys in a way that I hadn't before. I knew that I was supposed to like girls, and so I played along I pretended as best as I could. I knew about the word ‘gay,’ but I definitely was not that.
I had learned what being gay was from two sources: from my peers and from the church. Right now, our public schools are working very hard to become safe and encouraging places for LGBTQ students, but things were a little bit different when I was a kid and in high school. Same-sex marriage was only legalized in Ontario when I was 12, and even then it remained on the fringes of society; it was a taboo topic for religious and non-religious people alike. Words like ‘faggot’ and ‘homo’ were often the go to insults among my peers, and so I knew that being gay was definitely not a good thing. Gay people were weak, girly, creepy, and disgusting. The church taught me that being gay was a perversion of God's intentions for sexuality; that it was an abomination, that it was unnatural, that it was shameful. And that gay people certainly had no place in the kingdom of God.
‘The Gay Agenda’ was opposed to ‘The Mission of God,’ and as Christians, we needed to do what we could to push back and fight for righteousness and godliness. When same-sex marriage was legalized in Ontario, my church leadership encouraged the congregation to sign a petition to the government to ensure that churches would still be able to deny marriage for gay couples. While the intention of this petition was not to create an enemy of the gay community, as a child, that was definitely how I perceived that. I was a good, straight Christian kid. I was just a straight Christian kid with no interest in girls and with a crush on most of the boys in my class.
So as I started high school, I realized that my feelings weren't changing, that they were only getting stronger. At this point, I started to really wrestle with fear and guilt—fear that I was in fact gay, fear that people would find out that I was gay, and above all, fear that I was going to go to hell for being gay.
Guilt. I knew how strongly scripture spoke against homosexual behaviour. I had been taught that homosexuality was comparable to other forms of sexual perversion, such as rape, pedophilia, or bestiality. And so every time I had a gay thought or dream, I experienced overwhelming guilt and shame. In some ways, my struggle with my sexuality actually fueled my Christian faith. Worship was always a time filled with emotion as I felt the crushing weight of my guilt lifted and marveled in the hope and promise that God was in fact able to rescue me from the grips of my sin. I really believed in hope that this struggle was just a part of my story and that God was going to heal me of this brokenness.
For over a decade, I hated this part of myself. I would have done anything for God to take it away. I spent days fasting and countless nights on my face before God, praying through streams of tears that God would fix me; that would become pure and holy; that I would be anything but gay. These intense emotional experiences with God defined my experience of faith. And so when I was 18, I was still struggling with same-sex attraction. I was starting to get pretty nervous about things like dating and getting married and starting a family. After all, I only had a few years before I needed to be married, or else people would surely figure it out that I was gay.
I had a close friend from camp and church who I shared a lot of common interests with. I wasn't attracted to her physically, but then I had never been attracted to a girl before. My hope was that, if I dated her, that God would see my faithfulness and reward me for it by changing my orientation. So at 18 years old, I went on my first date. We were best friends, and this relationship was huge in defining who I was as I came into adulthood. There was just one problem: there was no romantic element in the relationship. Even just holding hands felt really strange and uncomfortable to me. I would avoid any romantic or physical displays of affection, and so that just became the normal In our relationship. And so I played the role of the good and pure Christian kid saving hand holding for marriage.
The years flew by, and after about a year of dating, people started to ask the question: So when are you going to get married? I would always dodge those questions, and for some reason, we never really talked about it with just the two of us. I thought maybe if I got married to a woman, God would reward me for my faithfulness. But at the same time, the idea of being married or engaged to a woman was literally a recurring nightmare for me. So after dating for almost six years, at the age of 24, I came to the conclusion that I could not be in a romantic relationship with a woman. I broke up with my girlfriend and told her that I just didn't feel like marriage was for me, and that I was going to embrace a life of singleness.
While I'm confident that this was the right decision, I've since then struggled with a lot of heavy guilt that I was so dishonest with her for six years. After that relationship ended, I finally gave in and admitted those three terrifying little words to myself: I am gay. God is not going to change me. This is the way that I am.
I would be single and celibate, because that's what Paul said was best. I would keep my sexuality to myself and live happily ever after. That's just the life that gay Christians are called to. I had no intentions of ever telling anyone about my sexuality. But then there were some experiences that I had that started to pull at the threads of my firmly knit ideas about sexuality. I was teaching piano lessons for a family with lesbian moms. I taught in their home so I saw some of their family life and what a loving and nurturing family it was. This was a cause of extreme cognitive dissonance for me. I asked myself, What does God require of this couple? Is the good right and holy thing for them to split up tearing apart a loving family, all because God didn't intend sex to be this way?
It became clear to me that this question was about far more than just sex. But I still didn't know how to reconcile this with my reading of scripture. The world suddenly did not fit into my binaries of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, inside and outside. I didn't know what to do with this.
At this point, I was starting to really struggle with my faith, and it felt like I hadn't heard from God in a long time. So that summer, I got to leave from work, and I planned to bike 3,000 kilometres to the East Coast. And it wasn't just a bike trip; I was on a mission. I was looking for God, to have some time to think to figure myself out, to figure the Bible out, to figure the world out. I spent a lot of time on my trip reading scripture and Christian authors, listening to podcasts, meditating, and praying. But sometimes I felt like I was moving in the opposite direction from where I should be going. Rather than building and strengthening my faith, I felt like I was pulling it apart and deconstructing it.
I realized that there was a lot of stuff in the Bible that I didn't like, or that I couldn't make sense of—stuff that was a source of deep pain; stuff that made me angry. My faith felt like it was crumbling. But on that trip, I made a resolution that I would continue to seek God and faith even when it didn't make sense to me. And when it felt like God was not there, I would push through this dark night of the soul. So this was about a year and a half ago, and in a lot of ways, I am still learning every day and exploring faith, as a lot of you probably are, too. That's one of the things that I really love about Elevation is that we acknowledge that we are all in a journey of faith, not that we have all arrived at faith. The ways that I experience and interact with God, the Bible, and faith are still evolving.
And so very gradually, after many years of wrestling, thinking, and praying, my views about homosexuality changed. So when I say that I am gay, many people in the Christian community ask for clarification about what I mean by that. Do you think that same sex marriage is okay? Are you open to dating or relationships? Marriage with a man? Yes, I do think that same sex marriage is okay. Yes, I am open to dating men.
So this is where I will lose some of you. After all, the Bible very clearly condemns any kind of homosexual activity, doesn't it? You may say things like, Are you just going to throw away scripture and ignore the authority of God because you don't like what it says? This is where things get a little bit painful for me. Sometimes the assumption is made that anyone who affirms same-sex marriage has no respect for the Bible. I want to be clear that I deeply respect and value the Bible. I think the difference is in the way that we approach scripture. In my opinion, the Bible should not be read as an authoritarian list of rules that we must submit to without questioning. Rather, the truth of the Bible is arrived at through a wrestling with the text by the people of God and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit who is still able to speak today. Throughout history, the Bible has been misused to further the oppression of women, slaves, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, scientists, etc. The implications of how we use this book are massive. And so I would advocate that the Bible should be read as the written revelation of God that calls us, beckons us, and invites us into a more full way of living: a life characterized by love, Grace, hope, mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, hospitality, empathy, and humility.
I am a Christian. I am gay. I respect and value scripture. I don't see these as contradictory statements. So I realized that this may come as a shock to many of you. Some of you may need a lot of time and space to process this. I realize that we have a very wide spectrum of belief here at Elevation, and I'm willing and ready to extend grace to all of you in our community that hold a different view than me. And so I would humbly ask for your grace as well, as we continue to walk through this conversation. My hope and prayer is that we will experience unexplainable unity through all of this, made possible only by the deep love of God that has called us together.
Thank you, Eric, for having the courage to share your story with us here this morning.
A couple of months ago, I came home from work and Melissa said, “Well, how was your day at work today?”
I said, “It was interesting.”
I shared with her the story that Eric had shared with me. It wasn't confidential; he told me I was free to do that. And she said, “Were you surprised?”
I said, “I wouldn't have been more surprised if Eric had walked into my office and punched me right in the teeth!”
No, I didn't see that one coming. You know what, this sermon is not a response to Eric's story. This has been planned for months. You know, long before Eric came into my office, I wanted to talk about the importance of listening in the month of January. I talked to our Steering Committee about how I wanted to tackle this topic as a church and how I wanted to have extended conversations outside of Sunday mornings for us to wrestle with this together. But I do think that Eric's story makes it all that much more important that we do this well.
There are a couple things that I shared with our Staff and our Steering Committee as we began to talk about it, that I want to share with all of you. Two things that I think are the most important things for us to do. The first is to commit ourselves to loving and care for caring for Eric as a member of our Elevation community, the same as we do for everyone else. And the second is the need to acknowledge that this is a significant and complex issue, which will require us to explore our questions together in a healthy way.
You see, we start at a place of diversity, and if we apply understanding to our conflict, then we arrive at a place of tension.
What did you think, that I was going to write ‘harmony’ at the end there? That I was going to bring back the butterflies and puppies? Nope: tension. Because understanding moves us towards the other person and by moving towards them and not away from them, we will be able to hold the tension.
I love the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “I must confess I'm not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly opposed violent tension. But there is a constructive nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
So our goal as a church in this season is to walk this journey together without having to come into a place of across-the-board agreement on this issue, which, while a very important issue, is not one of our core beliefs.
There are those on either far end of the spectrum, possibly some of you here this morning, who believe the goal of holding tension on this issue is not possible. For some, because accepting people who believe or live differently is heretical and unbiblical. For others, because anything less than full acceptance is rejection and devalues LGBT people. But I believe the tension can be held.
A year before I had those conversations with Justin Lee, I was part of a theology commission with our denominational family and one of the members of that small team shared about how his son had just come out as being gay. It's public knowledge, so it's fine I'm sharing the story. But it wasn't at the time, and he asked us to pray with him. And so I emailed him afterwards, and I said, “Thanks for sharing your story.” I said, “Can I journey along with you here, because I’ve got to learn how to do this well.”
And so, over the last number of years, we've emailed back and forth and we've had conversations about his experience. At one point, he shared a blog entry that his daughter had written about the experience. She talks about the time where her brother came out:
“A family meeting was called. Now, that might sound extreme to some, normal to others, or just weird. I don't know. I just know that this is my family's response to things and one of the reasons I love the family I'm in...You don't need to know everything about the meeting, some things are deeply personal, but the main thing that was said was "we love you." And we made a commitment. A commitment to walk this journey no matter how messy it got because we are family and we are going to fight for family.”
You guys have heard me talk numerous times about how family is the most common New Testament metaphor for the church. At one point in time, I sent an email to this colleague and I said, “How are things going? How's it been going lately?”
He responded with a lengthy email and part of what he said, I want to share with you. He said, “We continue to advance along the pathway of life and grace with our son, finding new opportunities to communicate, grow, affirm, encourage and challenge each other along the path. In terms of our relationship, it remains strong and growing, and we continue to celebrate and enjoy many areas that we are in complete agreement with. There are a couple of areas that we know we disagree on—a values collision around gay marriage, for example—but we are committed to disagreeing respectfully, graciously and lovingly, and this is required exploring levels of heart communication that are at times uncomfortable, but ultimately very valuable.”
Another time, he said that someone wrote and accused him of having an agenda. His response was, “Yes, I have an agenda: to be more Christ-like to everyone.”
A member of our church community sent me a note a few weeks ago after hearing that we were going to be talking about this. And they said, talking about their experience of landing with us at Elevation, they said, “We wanted to find a place where people, kids, teens and adults could ask questions safely, explore their faith, and have real conversation and discussion with peers.”
It should be no surprise to us that our younger generations, our junior and senior youth who are here with us this morning in the service, and all of our kids who are down the hall watching a movie, are much more comfortable staying in relationship with those that they disagree with than we are. It's tougher for some of us older folks to do that. But maybe our kids can lead the way.
You see, I've got a lot of voices running through my head these days, but the loudest one tells me to reject the polarizing, divisive categories of affirming and non-affirming and focus instead on a more biblical word: grace. And to invite people into a community where grace is offered; where grace is offered by affirming people to those who are non-affirming, with an understanding that the primary reason for their unwillingness to fully embrace LGBT relationships is not ignorance or prejudice or hatred, but a depth of faith faith that they cannot set aside; a place where grace is offered by non-affirming people to those who are affirming, with an understanding the primary reason for their willingness to fully embrace LGBT relationships is not because they don't care about the Bible or are ruled by their passions, but a depth of conviction that they are created this way and are capable of loving God honouring lives; and a community where grace is offered by God to all of us who need it in so many ways, not the least of which is because we may very well be wrong on this issue, wherever we happen to stand.
And that is the kind of community that I hope we can be; that is the kind of church I would be proud to lead, proud to invite my neighbours to, proud to raise my kids in, proud to one day hand off to the next generation; that is the kind of congregation I want to be a part of, one that will accept me and walk alongside me and not turn their backs on me; one where we can all walk down this aisle to the communion table, not as the righteous, but as sinners; a congregation that provides the best possible environment for a person to grow in Christlikeness, regardless of how we feel about their choices; that is the kind of faith that inspires me and calls me on, a faith that is rooted in Jesus, a faith that rejects the arrogance of certainty and embraces the humility of mystery, a faith that draws us into the heart of God, where we encounter Him and are changed in His presence.
Richard B. Hays is a writer who writes strong arguments in favour of a traditional view of this issue, but he acknowledges the difficulty of doing this in community. He talks about some people's demands to exclude LGBT people from the life of the church. He says, “If they are not welcome, I will have to walk out the door along with them, leaving in the sanctuary only those entitled to cast the first stone. This means that for the foreseeable future we must find ways to live within the church in a situation of serious moral disagreement while still respecting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
And to this end, and not to seek to persuade one another to any particular conclusion, we're going to engage over the next few weeks in a process of listening to and learning from others about the diverse ways we tend to think about this complex theme. We're going to seek good answers, not perfect answers. We will listen into one another, we will listen to God, we will listen to the Bible. And we will listen to the wisdom of other churches around this issue so that we can begin to understand and live in the complexity of it all.
If you go to our website, as of this morning, you'll find on the front page this little bar that says, “Listen and Learn.” And it will take you to another page that introduces you to this series that we're going to do during the month of March, during the season of Lent. We're going to take some time to talk about this well. We will have two different sessions we're going to host and we're going to host each of them twice, so if there's a conflict date, hopefully the other one will work for you. And we're going to have some interactive dialogue. We're going to learn; we're going to come to a better understanding, raise our collective IQ about this together. So I'd encourage everyone to go on—we're going to ask people to register so we can plan accordingly.
Otto Scharmer writes, “The higher the complexity of a given challenge, the greater the need to broaden one's conversational repertoire.”
And I just love that phrase: “broaden our conversational repertoire.” We need to learn how to do a better job talking about these difficult issues. And if we do, then from our diversity, we can apply understanding to get us through conflict to that place of tension, and we can hold tension and receive the reward of unity.
You know, the Bible isn't always easy to read. Some of the things we find in scripture require us to dig into original languages, some of them require us to really wrestle with what the author wrote, but some things are just plain and simple. Like Ephesians 4:3, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” That's pretty straightforward to me.
I’d invite you to stand this morning, and I'd like to close by reflecting back on our reading this morning, if you even remember what it was. I mean, it was so long ago, we've talked about so much, do you even remember what it was? It was a good one! It's a story about Jesus’ disciples getting into a boat and rowing across this lake, but they got into the boat without Jesus. And they got into this boat without Jesus and all of a sudden they were surrounded by darkness. And they were surrounded by winds and they were surrounded by waves, and the Bible tells us that they were frightened. Other translations say they were terrified. And maybe that's how you feel right now, like we're rowing this boat into the abyss: Oh my gosh, what's gonna happen? But then Jesus walked up to them on the water, and he said, “It is I, don't be afraid.” Then the Bible says they were willing to take him onto the boat. And something miraculous happens—as if walking on the water wasn't miraculous enough—the Bible says immediately they reached the other side of the lake.
You know, we can try to do this on our own, or we can invite Jesus to be with us in this process. And so as we take these steps, our Staff and Steering Committee ask you to pray along with us during this season of listening and learning, that we would grow together in understanding, that we would be able to love each other well in the tension of not having all the answers, and that a deeper unity would be ours on the other side of the lake. Let us pray.
God, this is our prayer. And maybe there are a lot of other things we want to pray right now, or maybe we don't even have a clue how to pray right now. But God, we stand before you as a community of faith that longs to reflect your love into the world; that longs to honour the scriptures that you have given us; that longs to live the lives that you call us to live. And so God, we pray at the beginning of this journey that we're about to head on, that your Spirit would lead and guide us, that you would give us grace for one another regardless of where we're at, or where we're not at, or how sure we are, or how confused we are. I pray that grace would be the overwhelming thing that we experience together as a church. God, as we move into the next part of our service to sit down and engage in this conversation, I pray that you would help us to engage it well, to respect the people around the table, and to understand that we need to apply patience because this is a longer conversation we're engaging in. So go with us now, we pray...in Christ's name. Amen.
(Transcribed by https://otter.ai)