Tough Texts: a new Vinebranch sermon series

September 17, 2009

Like most Methodist preachers of a recent vintage, I preach from the Revised Common Lectionary. The Lectionary is an ecumenical three-year calendar of scripture readings—one from the Old Testament, a Psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel—for each Sunday in the Christian year. (This year is Year B, which focuses on scripture from the Gospel of Mark.) For most of my five years in ministry, I have chosen one of these texts to preach from each week. One benefit of using the Lectionary is the reassuring feeling that I’m preaching the same text as much of the rest of the universal Church all over the world—Catholics, Anglicans, and mainline Protestants. It also challenges me to avoid simply preaching the parts of the Bible that I like best.

But here’s one problem with it: The Lectionary sometimes omits tricky, ambiguous, or problematic passages, which many people sitting in the congregation want to hear about. This week, for example, I received an urgent email from a Sunday school class concerning Paul’s challenging words in Romans 13:1-7. Since government, as Paul writes, is “instituted by God” and is a “servant of God,” how are Christians supposed to relate to the state? Should they support their government no matter what? Should they be apathetic in face of tyranny or genocide? Are they supposed to go along to get along? And what about Nazi Germany? Most preachers, including this one, would probably rather avoid this scripture entirely… Too many tough questions involved! The Lectionary includes the passage immediately before 13:1-7 and immediately after, but excludes this one. How convenient! And it’s not fair to you and me because we all ought to hear the gospel proclaimed through this scripture, too.

In light of this challenge, I’m beginning a sermon series this Sunday, September 20, in Vinebranch for the rest of the Christian year (through November 22) that I’m calling “Tough Texts.” We’ll focus on some of these difficult texts, including the aforementioned passage from Romans 13, Ephesians 5:21-33 (“Wives, be subject to your husbands,” etc.), and Romans 9:19-24 (“objects of wrath” and “objects of mercy”).

I bet you have some of your own tough texts. What are they? Feel free to let me know by leaving a comment below. I would love your feedback.

P.S. Did you know that Vinebranch encourages texting in church? Well, sort of… For the past couple of weeks, after the scripture is read, I’ve asked people to text me questions they have about the scripture. I try to answer two or three of them during the sermon time. I’ve gotten a great response so far. Thank you!

7 Responses to “Tough Texts: a new Vinebranch sermon series”

  1. Don Curt Says:

    Look forward to the series Brent. Like the new “Theotech” approach.

  2. Stephanie Says:

    Look forward to it!

  3. Brent, Today was an excellent beginning! Your sermon really got me thinking about what we can/could/should/should not do, as we attempt to do God’s work in our daily lives.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, everyone… Mary, your comment was automatically placed in the spam folder (for some reason) that I only just looked at. Sorry it wasn’t posted earlier. Next time I’ll know to check the spam folder!

  4. Carmen O'Shea Says:

    Looking forward to the wives being subject to their husbands sermon! Here’s my tough text…

    1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:25-27

    There is such controversy surrounding these types of passages – some believing in the exact literal translation and others believing you have to look at the context and situation behind the passage. I fall in the second group – believing that the translation of homosexuality in biblical times is not the same as the loving, monogamous relationships in today’s society. But, I struggle with the idea that my opinion and beliefs might not be in line with Christian values. Even though the topic of homosexuality is not an issue that directly affects me, I have many Christian friends who are directly impacted. When they turn to me for support and discussion, I am sometimes at a loss for how to respond.

    I’ve heard people who condemn those who are gay saying that even if someone was ‘born a certain way’ – in order to be Christian and have salvation, they should not be tempted and give into their desires. Are they to deny their own heart and live a lonely life void of intimacy because the love they feel for someone is considered sinful? Is monogamous, consensual love between two adults a sin? Is this what really was meant by these passages? And who are we to judge and condemn? Maybe that is where some of my frustration lies – my previous church had a very strong stance on this subject and in turn, pushed out certain people in the congregation. Acceptance and tolerance were thrown out the window and it seemed that this sin was held up above all other sins because of a few people’s open distaste for the situation. The Book of Discipline states that the Methodist church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching – but that God’s grace is available to all. It seems simple enough – but yet, there seems to be so much written between the lines.

    Anyway Brent….don’t feel like you have to preach on this….it’s just a part of the Bible that I’ve struggled with.

  5. brentwhite Says:


    What a thoughtful note! Thank you very much. I might even pull this response out as a separate entry, because a lot of Christians struggle with this question… I thought about preaching on one of these texts. My overriding concern–unless someone convinces me otherwise–is that the sermon wouldn’t be “family-friendly” enough for a Sunday morning sermon. Know what I mean? But that’s one reason I wanted to have this blog, so here are my two cents (for the moment, always subject to change)…

    This issue is incredibly difficult because we all have friends and family members who are gay. It’s one thing to discuss this issue in the abstract and quite another when we’re face to face with someone we love who is a good and loving person, similar to us in so many ways, except that they happen to be gay. Regardless how or when sexual orientation is formed, I think everyone agrees that it becomes relatively fixed and difficult to change. To my knowledge I never chose to be straight, and I doubt I could choose to be gay even if I wanted. Why should I assume that my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters had a choice that I never had?

    I think your questions strike at the heart of the issue for Christians: “Are they to deny their own heart and live a lonely life void of intimacy because the love they feel for someone is considered sinful? Is monogamous, consensual love between two adults a sin? Is this what really was meant by these passages?” Sexuality is surely one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Sexuality helps to define who we are; we almost can’t exaggerate how important it is to our identity.

    So, regardless of our position on gay equality within the church, let’s feel the very real tension here: The church often tells gay and lesbian Christians that in order to be faithful to Christ they have to abstain from enjoying this gift of sexuality and deny this incredibly important part of their identity. And, no, it’s not helpful for the church to simply say, “Well, you can just be straight.” As I implied earlier, if someone told me I had to be gay, I would be in a bind! I wouldn’t know how to do that. All this to say that at the very least–regardless of one’s position on the subject–we ought to acknowledge the unfairness of this problem and feel great compassion for our brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with sexual orientation. Can’t everyone agree on that?

    Another thing that the church sometimes says is, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I don’t know how to do that! I do feel hatred toward plenty of sins, but I can’t work up any special anger or resentment toward two adults in a loving, committed, monogamous relationship. If this is a moral failure on their part, it would rank very low on my list of problems in the world. Do you know what I mean? When I hear some Christians argue against homosexuality and say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” I wonder if they’re not “hating the sinner,” too. Don’t you think that a lot of these same people would be passionately opposed to homosexuality if the Bible were completely silent on the subject–because, as you say, it’s personally distasteful to them?

    But the Bible isn’t silent on the subject of same-sex sexual relationships, so we have to deal with it. But we also have to understand what the Bible says in context. The first and most important point is that there was no such thing as “homosexuality” in the first century (or before). Homosexuality, from what I understand, is a recent concept to describe same-sex attraction as a relatively fixed “orientation.” In the world of the Bible, even people who engaged in what we would regard as homosexual conduct did so as straight people (if that makes any sense at all). In Romans 1, for example, Paul understands homosexual conduct as a problem of _excessive_ sexual desire. Men and women who engage in this conduct have a natural desire for people of the opposite sex, but their lust is so great that they’ve moved beyond heterosexual desire. Paul views homosexual behavior almost like a river that has overflowed its banks. It has, in Paul’s view, become idolatrous. (Idolatry is the important context of this discussion.)

    Homosexuals today would say, of course, that this is not at all what their experience of sexuality is like–and I’m sure the social sciences would agree with them. People understood the world very differently in the first century. Let’s not judge them. I’m sure people in future centuries will think we people of the 21st really got it wrong, too. Regardless, Paul is not speaking about the monogamous, committed relationship you mention. He knows nothing of it. That doesn’t mean that the this scripture doesn’t apply to them. It just wasn’t a question that Paul answered. The questions facing him and his contemporaries were very different from the ones facing us. So when we apply this scripture to new questions, let’s wield it more like a surgeon’s scalpel than a sledgehammer. OK?

    Does our sex-worshiping culture commit idolatry–even if we understand sexuality different today? Is it possible for gay and lesbian Christians to affirm the truth of this scripture (and others) if they are in a loving, committed, monogamous relationship? What changes do all of us–gay and straight–need to make in our lives in order that our sexual conduct not become destructive, idolatrous, and life-denying?

    We have to answer these questions for ourselves. I’m open to hearing different arguments. But you’re right: we make a grave mistake if we single out homosexual conduct in some special category of sin. What does Paul say in Romans 2:1, just a few verses later? “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

  6. Carmen O'Shea Says:

    Thanks Brent…I think you gave me an entire sermon! I couldn’t agree with you more on those points above and it’s refreshing to hear it from my pastor and Christian friend. You were able to put words to my own beliefs in a way that I could not do and I feel like that will help me when talking to some of my dear friends. I like the notion that our sexuality is a strong force in our own identity and it is not something we should have to ‘turn off’.
    And yes…I agree…not a family friendly topic for Sunday morning, but then again…something to consider for a youth/high school conversation sometime. One of the families pushed out of a previous church had a homosexual teenage son and he was very confused and angry with religion. I felt our church leadership handled the situation with cruelty and disrespect.
    Take care!

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