She interrupted the sermon I was preaching. "Excuse me. I don't mean any disrespect. I'm a lesbian. You're talking about all of this love and mercy. What does this mean for me?"
It was the launch day of our church plant in Long Beach, California. Long Beach has a large LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) population. (Only West Hollywood has a higher LGBT population in Los Angeles.)
Our new church was perched on the edge of the rainbow district in a 16-acre park that hosted homeless people, pushers, prostitutes, skaters, families, and gangs. Across the street the city's premier gay coffee house borders the thoroughfare that the regular Pride parade marches through, which sometimes makes it impossible for us to get to our building.
My mind raced through various responses I could give. I knew that whatever my answer was, it might cost us half of our core church planting team.
As I faced the crowd, I was the only one who could see the tears glistening in her eyes as she fought back the emotion. I braced myself to give her the only answer I could give …
Rewind the Tape
The church has been in a difficult position since the 1980s, when the church was broadsided as movies like Philadelphia hit the box office, raising public awareness of the AIDS crisis. A new prejudice—sexism—was the talk of Tinseltown. While gay bashing or cracks about homosexuals could still be heard in pulpits to like-minded individuals in some churches, as they chuckled, the rift widened between straight followers of Jesus and their LGBT neighbors.
As a young Christian, I felt called to the LGBT community. To reach them though, I felt I had to go outside of the church. I trained as an RN, intending to work in an AIDS hospice. Back then, reading the gospels as a new convert, Jesus struck me as a radical. I was convinced that if Jesus had come today, he'd hang out with those who had AIDS.
After all, they had been ostracized like modern day lepers. The Jesus I read about was always on the wrong side of popular religious opinion. He alienated the "righteous" because of his proximity to the broken. He was the "friend of sinners." He broke taboos spiritual, racial, and social.
Two thousand years later, the church rarely comes close to being as radical as Jesus was.
Take the woman at the well, for example, or the woman caught in adultery. Jesus, without minimizing truth or justice, set their sins aside so that he could get at their souls.
As Christians, we've been grumpy neighbors. We've fought political wars instead of loving people compassionately. Those listening to us believe that we consider LGBT people as our enemies. We haven't learned our lessons from our mistake of the 1980s.
A Missed Opportunity
Thirty years ago, as AIDS swept the nation, Christians missed a unique opportunity. Prominent Christians preached that the disease was the judgment of God, while the gospel took the back seat. We missed the chance to suffer alongside AIDS patients, to bring the sick and dying whatever comfort or mercy we could extend.
Had we done so, instead of fighting the traditional values battle, we'd have neutralized any accusation of bigotry, because although we disagreed with the lifestyle, we still viewed them as worth saving and worthy of love. Such action would have been an embodiment of the gospel itself.
For 30 years we missed it, our unique opportunity to be AIDS activists. To be Good Samaritans, loving those who are different from us. To earn the right to be heard. And now we wonder why no one listens?
Caught in the Middle
In Jesus' day the Pharisees were committed to upholding the law with heartless precision, while the Sadducees were dedicated to throwing out anything that was difficult to believe. Religious conservatives and liberals. Jesus neatly avoided both camps.
Today theological liberals have adopted a "theology of convenience" in their dedication to reaching LGBTs, but dodge the difficult responsibility of faithfully representing a God who is as pure and holy as he is loving. Conservatives make their protective last stand on the high hill of morality, but dodge the difficult responsibility of actually loving their neighbors.
Both sides push people further away—though in opposite directions—from the God of the Bible. One side erects an idol of purely tolerant love, while the other preaches a righteous but wrathful deity that no one really could love. Both versions of God are easy to ignore.
Jesus glided deftly between these extremes. He threw no barriers in people's way, nor did he compromise God's holiness. There is tension here. It's not easy to understand, to preach, or to live. It probably takes a divine being to get that exactly right.
That was the dilemma I faced that day as the woman's question hung in the air. "I'm a lesbian. You're talking about all of this love and mercy. What does this mean for me?"
I answered, "It means the same for you as anybody else."
For all I don't know, I am confident that nobody gets a separate gospel.
One for All
I heard gasps from the crowd. For real. They betrayed those who didn't really understand the grace of God. Similar gasps must have been heard when Jesus singled out Matthew with his index finger and said, "Follow me." There was tension in the air. It was uncomfortable.
Then something beautiful happened.
An art professor called out, "Nobody here is any different from anybody else in God's eyes. You should get to know me. You think you're a hard case!"
Ten heads over, another woman raised her voice, "God loves you. You know how I know? He took me. I was a homeless, alcoholic wreck. Nobody wanted me, but Jesus wanted me, and I know he wants you too."
That day those who had been forgiven much, loved much. A grace sprang up from the core of their beings, and it overflowed.
It's ironic, but the church has always struggled to understand God's grace. Many Christians still think that it enables people to get away with murder, rather than transforming us from the inside out. They fear that grace means the "lowering of standards." Although God has never indicated that his definition of sin has changed, our lives may not be completely stitched up this side of heaven.
Like everybody else, members of the LGBT community come in with a lot of baggage and their transformation isn't instantaneous. But the gospel is the same for everyone.
Boarding the Plane
When someone from the LGBT community walks through the doors of the church, our approach is crucial. If our first thought is, Are you going to stop "that" and change? we become spiritual TSA agents. Hypocritical ones, too—erecting moral metal detectors and demanding people empty out certain banned sins before we let them fly.
And to be honest, isn't homosexuality the only sin that we make a barrier right from the start? We preach God's grace and explain that God will receive, forgive, and cleanse. We emphasize that they've been given the righteousness of Christ, and that sanctification will follow along their journey. But for many Christians, with homosexuality the change needs to happen yesterday. But as Jesus told the Pharisees, we shut the door of the kingdom in people's faces.
Why Are We So Afraid?
Jesus invited scandalous sinners to follow him. Although it seemed a simple, unrestricted invitation, there was an implicit recognition of the teacher's mastery over every area of the disciple's life … eventually. Like leaven, it would infiltrate every area of one's life, but it would happen "on the way."
In The Hobbit, Gandalf issued a similar invitation to Bilbo—to embark on a journey and become something different from what he was along the way. It was the journey itself that facilitated his transformation.
Who can pinpoint the moment at which the twelve were truly converted on their journey with Jesus? Whether the disciple is gay or straight, transformed lives result from going on a journey with Jesus, not cleaning themselves up before starting the journey.
Some churches take pride in a superficial purity. But at what cost? In his classic Life Together, Bonhoeffer quotes Luther: "Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes … he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing, who would ever have been spared?"
Real Church Stinks
When the churches I plant are most effectively reaching their community, Sunday mornings smell like alcohol. Lesbians sit in our midst holding hands. There are signs of poverty and substance withdrawal.
Ironically, it's our piety, our sense of superficial holiness while ignoring the real life that always starts beneath the surface, that gets in the way. Bonhoeffer observed, "The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship."
A number of people in our Long Beach plant have left alternative lifestyles, but we had to be patient with them. People who don't eventually repent (as a sign of that inner life coming to the surface) may not last long with us, but we last long with them. For us, baptism has served as a natural unspoken barrier for people ready to change.
The woman at our launch wanted to know what Jesus thought of her homosexual lifestyle. We shot straight with her. We understand that her sexual orientation may never change. We don't choose the objects of our attraction. Those with same-sex attraction don't care how you think they got "that way." The reality is that the gay community tells them "It's how you are. We accept you." The church should be no different.
Within our rows every Sunday morning, people sit confused, silent, and suffering conflicted desires. Do we have the courage of Jesus to break away from the chatter of the Pharisees?
"Who sinned," Jesus was asked in John 9, "that this man was born this way, him or his parents?" Jesus redirected the question. It's not how they got there, it's that they're here now and "this happened that the works of God might be displayed in him."
People in a life of homosexuality need love without blame, and without reservation. As we all do. The cause of our condition isn't as important as allowing it to be used for the glory of God.
Community Before Conversion
When Martin Lloyd-Jones ministered in a Welsh dockside church filled with blue collar, rough-necked converts, he protected them from overzealous believers who wanted to rush the work of the Holy Spirit. He told them to back off. To allow the Holy Spirit to do what he did best.
We cannot rush transformation, and trying to do so will hamstring the work of the gospel.
It's hard for straight Christians to understand the level of support in the gay community. Many members came out to face a lifetime of rejection because of their sexuality. They found a community that embraced and accepted them. A community that said "me too." Even a church that expects a gay Christian to choose against an active homosexual lifestyle has to understand that they need to offer that level of acceptance, care, and true friendship.
The TSA strategy will never work.
What we need is "discipleship in community." People who define their identity by their sexuality need the church community as part of their transformation process to finding their primary identity in Christ.
The community is also a tool of conversion. We need to find people already among us who have been there, who have wrestled with God on these issues and found both love and truth.
Everyone craves love. Many people have lived with years of rejection as a result of their sexuality. Unconditional love can heal the hurts they've experienced and point the way to following Jesus in spirit and in truth.