Summer is wedding season and while I'm not overwhelmed with wedding requests I've had a few and there is one that I'm really looking forward to in September. Weddings are, of course, special events. At their best, weddings bring not just two people together but families and even communities in a union bonded together in love. There is a simple joy in all that - even if the reality is that marriage itself is complex and sometimes difficult, just ask anyone who has been married longer than an hour. As we reflect on our reading from Scripture this morning, I want to discuss marriage a bit with you as we understand it in Christian terms, what marriage means as a legal institution, and to share with you some decisions that I have made about my role as a minister as it relates to marriage that have been helped along by my doctoral studies on this issue.
Let me begin by noting the reality that within the United States it is illegal for a minister or any other officiant to marry a gay or lesbian couple, much as it was illegal a generation ago to marry interracial couples. Oregonians voted to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in 2004 - it is part of our state Constitution - thus banning marriage equality. This state Constitutional amendment plus the federal Defense of Marriage Act will both have to be overturned for gays and lesbians to receive true marriage equality. Federal law does not recognize gay marriages that are legal in states such as New York.
As a minister, I am asked to be an agent of the state when it comes to marriage. One way for a marriage to become legal is for an ordained minister to sign a marriage certificate. The United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church USA are the only two mainline Christian denominations to support marriage equality, and that allow their clergy to perform such ceremonies. However, my religious freedom to provide pastoral care to gay and lesbian couples is curtailed by the government which says that I cannot legally marry same-gender couples - thus denying these parishioners the same care I can provide to straight couples. It does not seem the proper function of the government to tell me as a minister whom I can and cannot provide pastoral care to. That should be a decision of the church. The United Methodist Church, of course, forbids not just gay marriages but commitment ceremonies that the General Assembly of the church has deemed incompatible with Christianity. I look forward with great anticipation to the day this deeply flawed policy of this faithful denomination is overturned.
The United Church of Christ has developed an inclusive wedding liturgy, in which we pray for couples being married that:
...we come together in the presence of God to witness the marriage of the couple￼, to surround them with our prayers, and to share in their joy. The scriptures teach us that the bond and covenant of marriage is a gift of God, a holy mystery in which two become one flesh, an image of the union of Christ and the church. As the couple give themselves to each other, we remember that at Cana in Galilee our Savior Jesus Christ made the wedding feast a sign of God's reign of love. (So we pray that we) enter into (the wedding) celebration confident that through the Holy Spirit, Christ is present with us... We pray that (the) couple may fulfill God's purpose for the whole of their lives.
It is this idea of covenant that is so central, so important to marriage and there is no Biblical reason the marriage covenant should not be available to gay or lesbian couples.
Last fall, as I was taking a course in Biblical theology at Chicago Theological Seminary for my doctoral degree program, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about Chick-fil-A and their opposition to marriage equality. I note this mostly to brag that I wrote about this issue nearly a year before most anyone else was talking about it. ☺
I said then and I'll say now that I love Chick-fil-A. Their plain old chicken sandwich and a sweet tea can send me to heaven. I've always known they were owned by a Christian family and, frankly, I like that they close on Sundays. I'm old enough to remember when more stores did (of course, that often was enforced by law) and I think a (voluntary) day off from shopping and commercialism isn't a bad thing. But I was sad to hear then that the company had donated food to an anti-gay marriage group. Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy said the contribution was made because the company believes in a "Biblical definition of marriage." Mr. Cathy has since become even more vocal in his opposition to marriage equality.
What I suggested in my piece in The Huffington Post was that Mr. Cathy ought to read Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, a book from Boston University's Jennifer Wright Knust. This American Baptist pastor and scholar notes that: "When it comes to marriage, biblical laws are almost entirely contradictory." In short, the one "Biblical definition of marriage" that Chick-fil-A wants to promote doesn't exist.
I'm guessing Mr. Cathy never took my advice.
As I've preached, how we read the Bible matters. It is not to be taken literally. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, argued that Christian faith required one to bring Scripture, reason, experience and tradition to the table when trying to discern the will of God. Chick-fil-A is offering fast-food theology to a world that needs more than a bumper sticker understanding of the divine.
In a post for The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog, Knust wrote:
If we do take the time to read the Bible, we are likely to discover that the biblical writers do not agree with us, whatever version of sexual morality we are seeking to promote. Written more than 2,000 years ago at a significant historical and cultural distance, the Bible gathers together a diverse collection of ancient books, edited over time, not a coherent, divinely inspired set of instructions that can easily be applied. Tracing even a few, limited topics from one biblical book to another can make the point: If one book forbids marriage between foreigners and Israelites, the next depicts such marriages as a source of blessing, not only to Israel but to all of humankind. If one insists that women are saved by childbearing, the next recommends that women avoid childbearing altogether in order to devote themselves more fully to God. If one suggests that sex with a relative, the wife of another man, or with a male lover will certainly lead to the nation's downfall, the next depicts heroic kings engaging in precisely these forms of sex. And these are just a few examples.
Knust offers the same argument in her book. Knust writes: "The Bible is complicated enough, ancient enough, and flexible enough to support an almost endless set of interpretive agendas."
That may be true, in part. Taken as a whole, the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament offer (for me) a vision of covenant. My sense is that covenant includes within our relationships between one another and with God that we should - in Paul's words - be subject to one another out of love. That doesn't mean we have an anything goes faith without rules or boundaries. In fact, the opposite is true. You cannot, for example, abandon your family and remain in covenant with God or your relatives. Justice and compassion are central to Christianity. Yet, not all teachings from scripture should be practiced today (if they were, we'd still own slaves, as sanctioned in some parts of the Bible).
We must use an interpretative process to discern God's will for us - and do not think for a moment this isn't just what the different authors of the Bible did during the many centuries it was transformed from oral tradition to the written word. Using Wesley's criteria for discernment, it is important that we open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit - God's own breathe - to help guide us and for us to undertake this enterprise with humility.
A generation ago, as I have mentioned, interracial marriage was outlawed. This was justified by the use of Scripture. Genesis 28:1 reads: "Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, 'You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women." In the past, this piece of Scripture was interpreted by some Christians to mean that Hebrews and Canaanites were of different races and therefore no races should inter-marry.
We may think this silly today but when Barack Obama was born his father - a black man - and his mother - a white woman - were barred from being legally married in many states and the justification was often Biblical. We have discerned over time, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, to understand not only our own error in interpretation but also the reality that some of what is written in Scripture has no moral authority over us today. Or should I quote from 1 Tim 2:11-12? "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent."
You see, I'm willing to make the faith claim right here and now that God has no problems with interracial marriages, wants women to speak boldly with the voice of Sophia (the embodiment of God's wisdom), and that those who use Scripture to justify discrimination against gays and lesbians are making the same mistake in interpretation that we have made as a people over and over again.
So will I marry gay and lesbian couples?
Right now I'm a United Church of Christ minister serving two Reconciling Congregations in the United Methodist Church. The United Church of Christ affirms marriage equality. The United Methodist Church says homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. And both Sunnyside Church and University Park Church have pledged to welcome all, and are faithfully engaging the larger United Methodist Church to change the rules and truly become a church with open hearts and open doors and open minds.
So yes, I will marry any gay and lesbian couple that I believe is ready to make that commitment, using the same criteria to make that call that I would for any heterosexual couple. To respect the rules of the United Methodist Church, I will conduct those services at Ainsworth United Church of Christ, my home congregation.
Is there a risk is making this announcement?
I remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who told his church:
No member of Ebenezer Baptist Church called me to the ministry. You called me to Ebenezer, and you may turn me out of here, but you can't turn me out of the ministry, because I got my guidelines and my anointment from God Almighty. And anything I want to say, I'm going to say it from this pulpit. It may hurt somebody, I don't know about that; somebody may not agree with it. But when God speaks, who can but prophesy? The word of God is upon me like fire shut up in my bones, and when God's word gets upon me, I've got to say it, I've got to tell it all over everywhere. And God has called me to deliver those that are in captivity.
So if you're gay or you're lesbian or bi-sexual or transgendered or questioning, I want to make it clear today: I am your pastor too. I am your pastor if you're straight, if you're a Democrat or a Republican, if you're black, white, Latino. And no rulebook or law will prevent me from providing you with the pastoral care I am called to provide.
What I will no longer do after September is sign wedding licenses. Until the day comes when marriage equality is the law of the land I will no longer act as an agent of the state in an institution that is discriminatory. In this, I join a small but growing number of clergy. I will offer you the religious rites of the church but will invite you to have your marriage license signed by a judge or other official of the state.
When the General Synod of the United Church of Christ endorsed marriage equality in 2005, they noted:
The message of the Gospel is the lens through which the whole of scripture is to be interpreted. Love and compassion, justice and peace are at the very core of the life and ministry of Jesus. It is a message that always bends toward inclusion. The biblical story recounts the ways in which inclusion and welcome to God's community is ever expanding - from the story of Abraham and Sarah, to the inclusive ministry of Jesus, to the baptism of Cornelius, to the missionary journeys of Paul throughout the Greco- Roman world. The liberating work of the Spirit as witnessed in the activities of Jesus' ministry has been to address the situations and structures of exclusion, injustice and oppression that diminish God's people and keep them from realizing the full gift of human personhood in the context of human communion.
I find truth in this statement and have love for the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ and the church universal - not as institutions, but as part of the body of Christ. We are all one in Christ. It is in that spirit of love, that I come forth today to share with you God's call to us to love all people in ways that honor and continue the ministry of Jesus. It is a ministry, as we heard this morning in our text from John, that is joyful and where the Disciples - and by extension us - are commanded once again simply to love as Jesus has loved us - without condition or judgment, and centered on God's desire for us to be free from oppression or captivity, in covenant with one another and with God. Amen.