Sermon Text: Romans 1:18-32
The following is my original manuscript.
I’ve mentioned Serena in the past. Do you know Serena? Serena is my GPS receiver. My kids gave her that name on our first car trip with her. She speaks with an English accent, and she never gets lost. And she never judges me for my poor sense of direction. Just last week, Serena guided me to Annual Conference in Athens, but I missed my turn from Highway 120 to 316 and accidentally got on I-85. It wasn’t Serena’s fault. She told me where to turn, but I wasn’t listening to her voice. I was, in fact, listening to another voice—the voice of a narrator of a really interesting story on public radio’s This American Life.
According to Paul in today’s scripture, we human beings are a little bit like this when it comes to God. We are lost with a very faulty sense of direction. Spiritually speaking, we can’t get our bearings straight and our internal GPS system, which should naturally point us in the direction of God, has been badly compromised by sin. God has continually sent us signals about where to go, but—like me on my way to Athens—we’re not paying attention. We constantly make the wrong turn. In verses 19 and 20, Paul writes that within the fabric of Creation itself are signposts pointing us in the direction of the one true God.
If you read my blog, you may notice that I occasionally get feedback from atheist readers who challenge me on the question of God’s existence. And I have a dialogue with them. And even though these atheists can’t explain ultimately how we got here—because the science to which they appeal can only provide a partial, woefully incomplete explanation at best—these atheists keep violating their own principles by appealing to concepts like “the good,” and justice—fairness—right and wrong, love. And I call foul. Atheists can’t appeal to justice and goodness and love, because those concepts don’t mean anything according to their own principles. What’s “good” to them is is purely accidental and subjective. It’s a matter of personal taste and opinion. So I gently remind them of that.
Absent of God, the universe has no meaning. But even people who believe God is absent don’t live their lives that way—they can’t! And the fact that they can’t—and the fact that our world seems so incredibly meaningful to everyone—is one good reason for believing that God exists—and that concepts such as love and justice and goodness matter a great deal to the God who created the world. So God has revealed himself within nature, but, Paul writes, humanity became “futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”
And, hearkening back to that first sin in the Garden of Eden, Paul writes, “[T]hey exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Idolatry, Paul writes, is the central problem. We are made to worship and serve God. If we fail to do that, we’ll worship and serve something else. We probably scoff at the idea of ancient people carving an idol out of wood or stone and bowing down and worshiping it as a god. We think, “How could they be so dumb?” But don’t we do the same thing in more subtle ways today? What are some of the things we contemporary Americans worship? Money, sex, power, possessions, patriotism, relationships, career, status… We can take even good things and make an idol out of them in our minds. Martin Luther called our minds “idol factories.” Paul would agree.
In 1909, in the early days of the automobile, when road signs were sketchy and unreliable, an engineer named J. W. Jones invented an ingenious mechanical device called the Jones Live-Map, which attached to your car’s odometer. It was a glass enclosed dial in which you would insert disks, which rotated in relationship to the distance you traveled. There were turn-by-turn directions and other helpful information about your location printed on the disk. When it was time for you to make a turn, the dial pointed to it. If it worked, it would guide you, effortlessly, from one city to another. You’d have a different disk for each destination you wanted to drive to. But still… In the days before Google Maps and GPS, that’s kinda cool, right?
The problem with this device, as you can already imagine, is your starting point. If you didn’t start in exactly the right place, all these directions were completely worthless. Because the whole system was based on your starting point. Paul is saying the same thing about us human beings. If our starting point—what we worship—is something or someone other than the one true God, we’re going to be lost! Our problems will only multiply with every new turn that we make. In Romans chapter 1, Paul says, this is who we are, and this is how we got here. We did not worship properly. Our starting point was not God. And the whole history of this world of injustice, violence, warfare, oppression, slavery, and poverty tells the sorry tale of what happens as a result.
One symptom of this problem, Paul writes in verses 26 and 27, is homosexual behavior. Why is Paul focusing on that? Country to popular opinion, I don’t think he’s focusing on it because, as a first century Jew, his tender sensibilities are offended by it. Paul isn’t a prude. I think he’s focusing on it because it symbolizes for him an important distortion of God’s original intention for humanity as expressed in Genesis 1 and 2—the intention for male and female to complement each other, to be fruitful and multiply. “Because of their idolatry,” Paul says, “humanity has gotten badly off course, and here’s a perfect symptom of this larger problem.” Paul is not saying that homosexuals are bigger sinners than anyone else, nor is he saying that homosexuals are personally responsible for being gay. Bad stuff happens to us as a result of human sin, and it’s not necessarily something we choose or bring on ourselves. Paul doesn’t even propose what the church ought to do about the problem. But he is saying that it’s problem.
Please keep in mind: We are Methodists. We enjoy disagreeing with one another. You may disagree with Paul and say that he is speaking from a culturally relativistic point of view, and he doesn’t understand human sexuality the way we do today. You may disagree with this interpretation of Paul—and say that he was talking about something other than gays and lesbians living in a committed, monogamous, lifelong relationship. And you may disagree with our United Methodist church’s position on the subject, which urges celibacy for gays and lesbians; prohibits gay marriage; and prohibits the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. It’s O.K. to disagree. I have many friends who do. And I understand why. We all should understand why! This would be much easier to talk about in the abstract—as if it didn’t affect us personally.
The problem is that most of us know and love people who are gay. They are often our friends and neighbors and family members. They are often brothers and sisters in Christ. And some of you listening to me may be gay—and I’m glad that you choose to love and serve Christ in this church. You are welcome here. When the vast majority of gay people say that they didn’t consciously choose to be that way, I have no reason to doubt them. After all, I didn’t consciously choose to be straight, and I wouldn’t know how to not be straight. It’s who I am—which works out well for me because I get to marry, and be sexually active in the confines of that marriage, and be an ordained minister. Good for me! How can I not feel anything but compassion for gay Christians who struggle with an orientation over which they have no control.
A good friend of mine reflects the viewpoint of many in our church when she asked, “How can something like sexual orientation, which is at the core of our identity as human beings, be a problem?” But that’s just it… That’s exactly Paul’s point. That’s the reason Paul brings this up in the first place. Our problem with sin, which affects all of us equally regardless whether we’re gay or straight, lies at the very core of our being. We are broken and damaged people who desperately need to be healed by Jesus Christ. Nothing less than a total transformation will do. And when we become Christians, we must spend a lifetime and more being transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Unlike many of my friends with whom I respectfully disagree on this issue, I’m not sympathetic with the popular pro-gay argument that says that there’s no problem with homosexual conduct because, after all, “This is just the way we are.” As if being a follower of Christ were a matter of simply getting in touch with “who we really are.” I understand that in our culture, failing to be “who we really are” is one of the worst sins. But if we understand Paul’s argument, being who we really are is precisely the problem! And that’s what needs to change. If sexual orientation is so ingrained within us that it can’t change, celibacy is and always has been a viable option for Christian living. And I know that’s asking a lot, and I know it’s a big sacrifice, and I know it’s not a sacrifice that most people, including myself, are called to make. But I also know that sacrifice comes with the territory when we follow Jesus.
Whether you agree or disagree with this interpretation, I hope you agree that Jesus our Lord has the right to tell us what we can and can’t do with our bodies. They don’t belong to us.
And I know that these are words completely, hopelessly against the grain of our culture, but culture is wrong about nearly everything else when it comes to human sexuality—whether it’s marriage and divorce, pre-marital sex, living together before marriage, pornography, or abortion. If we make what amounts to a radical change to our church life, let’s make sure that we’re not simply selling out to a sexually pathological culture. I wish that all sides to this disagreement would sit down and have an actual argument from scripture, tradition, and reason. Instead of calling each other names! Christians on one side are not necessarily homophobic for supporting the status quo. And Christians on the other side, who want to change the status quo, are not necessarily people who just don’t believe what the Bible says.
We Methodists are really big on grace, and we ought to be. Grace truly is amazing, as the song says. But we can easily misinterpret grace to mean that, once we accept Christ as savior, God is finally giving in and letting us do our own thing—as if sin suddenly isn’t a big deal. Like an indulgent grandparent who showers us grandchildren with money and lets us eat cake and ice cream for breakfast. There is at least a small part of our sinful hearts that wants God to leave us alone, and let us do our own thing. But leaving us alone and “letting us do our own thing,” according to Paul in today’s scripture, isn’t grace; it’s punishment. It’s what Paul means when he says, three times, “God gave them up.” God let these sinners do their own thing, reap what they sow, suffer the consequences of their sinful choices.
Grace, by contrast, means that God loves us too much to leave us alone and let us do our own thing. In fact, God loves us so much that he came to us in Jesus and suffered death on our behalf out of that great love. Grace means change. God changes us through grace. And all of us, no matter who we are, stand in need of that kind of change. Especially me—a sinner.
The highlight of my week at annual conference last week was watching kids from our church—in their brightly colored Vacation Bible School T-shirts—sing in a worship service before the 3,000 or so delegates and visitors. They sang at a special service of remembrance for clergy who had died in the previous year. After the sermon, they sang the hymn that goes “I want to walk as a child of the light/ I want to follow Jesus/ God set the stars to give light to the world/ The star of my life is Jesus.” I got choked up as I listened to these words. First, because I was reflecting on the lives of faithful men and women of God who walked this path before me, as children of the light, and whose race is now finished. When my race is finished, I wondered, will I have run it as faithfully as they ran theirs? Am I running it now as if I’m trying to win the prize—or am I just going for that green honorable mention ribbon? And me—a sinner—I still have some more work to do in that area. Do you?
Holy Spirit, where I fall short, please change me.
I also thought of these precious children singing on stage whose lives have hardly even begun—who are just now learning to walk as children of light. And as I watched them sing, I thought, “They’re off to a good start. Will they stay on course? Who will guide them along the way? Will they arrive safely on the other side of life—in heaven, in resurrection?” And I feel convicted as a father because when it comes to my own kids, so much of how these questions get answered depends on me! Not all of it, and I’m not in it alone, but God has entrusted me with this awesome responsibility as a father. And he has given you fathers out there that same responsibility. Will we live up to it? What are our children learning from us about God? Who or what do our children see us worship? I want my children to walk as children of light through my example, not in spite of it. I still have some more work to do in that area. Do you?
Holy Spirit, where I fall short, please change me.
Let us pray… Holy God, never leave us alone, but purify us by the grace of your refining fire. Burn away the chaff of sin. Mold us into the people you would have us be. Through Christ we pray. Amen.