SERMON: For The Record: Homosexuality
Introduction: Pastor AJ Thomas spent some time on staff in a couple of churches mainly doing youth ministry and worship leading. 5 years ago he led a team out from a church in the suburbs to daughter a church in the downtown core of the city of Halifax Nova Scotia. The culture of Halifax is very post-Christian and pluralistic with lots of universities and a vibrant arts scene. Deep Water is a church of about 250-300 people. About 90% of people in the church are between the ages of 18-35. Most are young in life and faith, and are well educated. AJ’s advice to preachers is “your job is to make scripture clear, compelling, and applicable – nothing more and nothing less.”
Lenny: Why do you feel it was necessary to address the issue of homosexuality at this point in the life of Deepwater Church?
AJ: This sermon was part of a series called “For the Record.” The idea behind the series was to take a bunch of issues that are frequently misunderstood or confusing. This is the single most hotly contended moral question of our day and we have buckets of folks with non-biblical views on the subject. So, I thought we would be remiss not to address it.
Lenny: I love the way you build rapport in the beginning of the sermon by making some important disclaimers like “the Bible disagrees with the loudest voices on both sides of the issue” and “while what I say might offend I hope that how I say it will not be offensive.” Whenever we preach on hard topics that are controversial, rapport-building disclaimers can give the sermon a chance to get off the ground for people on all sides of a given issue. Tell us why you voiced these disclaimers and describe the response you perceived while voicing them.
AJ: For the first one, the big danger in entering a debate with two clear sides is that people will almost instantly make a judgment about which side of the issue you are on and assume everything you say is in keeping with that side’s viewpoint. I just wanted to roll a grenade into peoples’ system of mental categorization so they had a better chance of hearing what I actually said not just what they think people on “that side of the issue” always say.
For the second, I guess I just genuinely meant it. I wanted to be clear that the tone of this message was gracious and that it was not an attempt to bash, dismiss, or otherwise devalue anyone, even if we saw the issue differently.
Lenny: When I have preached on a hard topic I have often come away wishing that I said this or, more often, that I didn’t say that. While your sermon is, without doubt, one of the best I have heard on this important topic, I suspect there are one or two things you might change about the content or delivery of the message. What are those one or two things you would do differently if you had the chance to preach this one again for your congregation?
AJ: I can totally empathize with that feeling. I have it almost every week. To be completely honest though, I was really quite happy with the way this one came out. There are no doubt improvements that could be made but this was a day when I brought my very best. I spent months in study, preparation, percolation, and refining and I took about 4 times the amount of notes “into the pulpit” as normal because I wanted to make sure I said this stuff exactly the way I had planned.
Lenny: John 1:14 asserts that Jesus came from the Father “full of grace and truth.” It would be easy in a sermon like this one to over-emphasize grace and ignore truth, or to over-emphasize truth and ignore grace. The premier strength of your sermon is that it struck the delicate blend of grace and truth. Of course, this makes both truth-without-grace people and grace-without-truth people upset. How did people in the church respond to your message? Did some think you offered too much grace or too much truth?
AJ: I was the most shocked by this. I totally expected to spend the next couple weeks putting out fires but I only received one piece of feedback that could be perceived as having any negative component. This person said they were very happy to hear some of what I said and respectfully disagreed with some other things. That said, giving a whole lot of feedback good or bad is not really part of the culture of this city, so who knows what people were saying about me over lunch. Several people were very happy to hear a clear articulation of the issue because they knew the biblical truth laid somewhere between the PRIDE parade and Fred Phelps but weren’t sure exactly where.
Of course very few people in the congregation would be looking at this from the lens of grace vs truth. They would be looking at it from the perspective of truth or not truth first and foremost, and how graciously it was said would be a distant second. That’s worth remembering too. Sometimes when we preach on issues like this it’s tempting to try assume everyone agrees with our truth and so we pile on the grace. That can easily come across as condescending and patronizing to those who hold a different view point. When we say stuff like “as we all know…” it also gives the impression that you can’t be a part of this community until you agree with us.
Lenny: In the middle of the sermon there was a climactic high point in which you moved from the topic of homosexuality and into the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, this was not just a talk about a topic, the kind we might get from a talk show panel. This message moved toward a proclamation of the Gospel. How did the part of the sermon come to you? Why did you feel the need to include it?
AJ: I guess it just seemed stupid to talk about sin without talking about salvation, and wrong to talk about grace without acknowledging that we all need it. The answer to homosexuality is not straightness; it’s Jesus. Homosexuality is such a divisive issue I felt like we needed to end up in the same boat at some point and the gospel is the thing that does that. The most consistent common ground we have with the rest of humanity is our need for God’s grace.