A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 20, 2012.
6”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
Justice surrounding the issues of sexuality and marriage has been intensely debated this month. On May 8, voters in North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment that states: “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” Vice President Biden and President Obama have separately announced that they personally believe that people who are gay and lesbian deserve the same right to marry as enjoyed by heterosexuals.
Equality is always a moral issue because it is related to power and privilege. Some people who enjoy social advantages and privileges because of legal protections and benefits are offended or threatened by the idea that others may get them. Heterosexuals enjoy advantages and privileges, such as marriage, that are denied people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
The political debate has been driven by a running controversy among religious people. Many religious people cite the Bible as their reason for opposing marriage equality for gay and lesbian people. Other religious people cite the Bible as their reason for supporting marriage equality.
This debate about marriage equality is part of a bigger concern about sexuality. Many religious people believe that homosexuality is immoral. The divided thinking about this question was on display earlier this month in Tampa, Florida when the United Methodist Church convened for its General Conference. By a 61% to 39% margin, delegates voted not to change the wording of the Methodist Book of Discipline which states: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Others who are equally devout disagree. The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) is a network of churches, affiliated organizations, and individuals who have gone on record as welcoming and affirming all persons without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. AWAB members are committed to work together for full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons within Baptists faith communities.
What does this have to do with what is commonly called the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus at John 17? What does it have to do with a sermon titled “A Prayer for People Who Aren’t Trying to Escape”?
Living for God requires dealing with reality, not trying to escape it. Jesus prayed concerning the people who were his followers and those like us who came afterwards: They are in the world … I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world so I have sent them into the world. [John 17:11, 14-18]
I am not asking you to take them out of the world … Jesus never asked God to remove us from the hustle and bustle, grit and grime, and other challenges that come from being human. We haven’t been called to follow Jesus through escapism.
Human sexuality is one of the realities of living in this world. Human sexuality is a reality none of us can deny or escape.
But sexuality is a reality many people find troubling, troublesome, or both. It’s a reality parents don’t understand, a reality most pastors don’t learn about in seminary, and a reality many people, congregations, and communities try to avoid.
Our humanity includes sexuality with all its blessings and challenges. We can’t excise sexuality from our humanity. Our duty to live for God in this world includes our sexuality. When we avoid honest thinking, serious conversation, and loving relationships surrounding human sexuality we engage in escapism.
People who aren’t trying to escape reality admit that human sexuality is always complex, sometimes confusing, and always part of who humans are.
- All humans are sexual beings.
- No human has ever chosen whether to be a sexual being.
- Sexuality is not a choice!
People do not choose whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. We make choices in our sexual behavior, but we don’t choose our sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is a reality humans come to recognize about ourselves.
Again, sexuality is part of our humanity. We can’t deny it, shouldn’t try to escape it, and have no right to expect God to give us an escape from it. Instead of trying to escape sexuality or any other morally-relevant aspect of life, we’re called to glorify God in our sexuality.
Glorifying God always involves facing truth. Facing truth involves trying to understand reality, not taking positions about reality without doing serious and prayerful thinking. Facing truth involves going beyond our fears and admitting that truth may require us to rethink long-held beliefs.
And facing truth requires us to admit that we have not always “known” what we now claim as true.
- We once “knew” that the earth is the center of the solar system.
- We once “knew” that the world is flat.
- We once “knew” that the universe was created in six 24 hour days.
- People in this country once “knew” that God intended black and white people to live separate and unequal existences.
Part of the inescapable truth about living in the world is that what we “know” isn’t always true and what is true is true whether we “know” it or not, even when we claim or deny its truthfulness based on Scripture. So, my advice as a pastor to anyone who wants to honor God concerning sexuality or anything else is threefold.
- Be honest.
- Be humble.
- Be hopeful.
Be honest. Admit what you don’t know. Most people didn’t learn very much about sexuality during childhood. Parents and other relatives didn’t talk much to us about it. They often didn’t talk very well about sexuality when they talked about it.
When were you part of a Sunday School class, church study course, or religious conference on sexuality? Did you study human sexuality in high school? Did you study sexuality in college? Most seminaries don’t include human sexuality among the subjects that are taught and studied. Of those that do, the course is only an elective.
We honor God in the world by being honest about what we don’t know. Admitting what one doesn’t know also means admitting that part of what one “knows” may not be true.
People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender pose no threat to the institution of marriage. Marriages are threatened by hypocrisy, hatefulness, and self-centeredness. Those vices appear in heterosexuals and homosexuals. It’s dishonest to restrict marriage to heterosexuals and then accuse homosexuals of threatening marriages.
It’s also dishonest to accuse gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people of undermining family life. GLBT people aren’t threatening family stability in our society.
- Ongoing wars that take men and women from their homes and loved ones and send them back wounded and scarred—or don’t send them back at all—threaten families.
- Deployments that take parents from their children threaten families.
- A culture that places more value on war profits than decent paying jobs, good public education, and healthcare for all threatens families.
- A system that hauls undocumented immigrant parents away from their minor children threatens families.
- Business owners who close factories and lay off workers so they can build new factories elsewhere and pay cheap wages threaten families.
- Companies that pollute air, water, and the ground threaten families.
- Men who treat women as sex toys threaten families.
- Women who treat themselves as sex objects threaten families.
- Parents who refuse to nurture children with love, self-respect, discipline, and respect for others threaten families.
- Men who treat children as trophies of their sexual conquests and exploits threaten families.
- Let’s be honest. None of these things have anything to do with sexual orientation.
Be humble. Humility involves more than not thinking too highly of oneself. Humility also involves not thinking less of others who disagree with us. Those who disagree with us may not be wrong. Even if they are wrong that doesn’t automatically make us right.
Be hopeful. Humanity is complicated living. We get it wrong a lot. But our hope is based on God’s love and truth, not our record of being right or wrong. Jesus prayed for us. The Holy Spirit will lead and correct us. God’s love trumps our record. Hallelujah!
Last month Patricia and I were among hundreds of Baptists who gathered in Atlanta for two days of honest, humble, and hopeful conversation about human sexuality. We listened and talked together. The [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant featured speakers from a cross-section of Baptist thought and life. We didn’t vote or debate on a resolution, doctrinal statement, or any other such thing. We simply gathered as honest, humble, and hopeful followers of Jesus.
I was a speaker at that conference and was happy to share how our congregation has been blessed to move from fear to joy surrounding the issue of human sexuality. Patricia was recruited to serve as a facilitator because so many more people attended the Conference than the planners expected. They weren’t trying to escape the realities surrounding sexuality.
At New Millennium Church we affirm every Sunday that we “welcome all persons in God’s love.” God’s love is the truth we strive to live out in every breath and heartbeat. God’s love does not ration justice based on privilege of any kind.
- In God’s love, poor people have as much right to marry as do wealthy people.
- In God’s love, people have the right to marry people who want to marry them regardless to race, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation.
As a pastor, I don’t need permission from the government to celebrate God’s love for people who want to be married. Arkansas, North Carolina, California, and other states may refuse to legally recognize gay marriage. But no law can prohibit me from pronouncing God’s blessing on a marriage ceremony for consenting adults who are committed to travel the journey of life together.
Dr. James Forbes has wisely observed that each person is engaged in a lifelong course in sex education. Jesus didn’t ask God to exempt us from that course or its challenges. Let it not be said of us that we tried to escape or hide from the realities of being human.
Instead, let it be said that we are living and loving our way toward what Dr. Forbes calls a PhD—Praising and Honoring the Divine. Let’s be honest, humble, and hopeful in this area of living, as anything else, trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us higher up and farther along in God’s love and truth. Amen.
Wendell Griffen is pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a circuit court judge in Arkansas. He served previously on the Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com board of directors.