President Obama’s support for gay marriage made headlines yesterday. In Minnesota the issue will come before the voters in November: Should the Minnesota State Constitution be amended to define “marriage” as between a man and a woman? One of my colleagues weighed in on the question from the pulpit of the Oak Grove Presbyterian Church. I post it here because it says more clearly than I what I believe.
“Standing on the Side of Love”
Oak Grove Presbyterian Church
Sunday,April 29, 2012
Today I invite us to think together about the amendment that is before the voters of Minnesota this fall that would place into the state constitution the requirement that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman.
I have a pastor friend, now retired, who loved to rile people up. If I might play amateur psychologist, my theory is that as the child of an alcoholic he was uncomfortable when things were calm. Well, my parents were teetotalers. As am I. I love calm. I hate conflict. I would much rather not talk about the amendment. I do so only because of the ordination vows I took almost 35 years ago. I am preaching today about the Marriage Amendment only because I am attempting to follow faithfully my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I might be mistaken. I once again remind you, that in the Presbyterian way of doing things, “Just because the preacher says it, doesn’t mean you have to buy it.”
I believe that to be faithful the Church always needs to take a stand, just like it did against slavery, just like it did in favor of human rights for women, for people of color. The Church ALWAYS needs to take a stand on behalf of human rights for all of God’s children. And especially so when it comes to fair treatment of LGBT folk, since the church has consistently led the way in their persecution.
When my grandchildren ask, “What did you do when the issue of human rights for gay people was still being debated?” I don’t want to have to say to them, “Well, as you know, Grandpa doesn’t like conflict, and I didn’t want to offend people, and I was afraid it might affect contributions, so I kept my mouth shut.” I especially don’t want to say that if the questioning grandchild happened to have been born gay.
There is so much to say that I couldn’t do it in one sermon, so I put a bunch of stuff in the bulletin handout. What I would like to do primarily in the sermon is to tell stories, most of them personal.
My story. It has been a long journey for me to get to where I am today. The Presbyterian Church was just starting to talk about the ordination of gay people when I graduated from seminary 35 years ago. The following year was the first vote at General Assembly, when the proposal was roundly defeated. In the lead-up to that vote I preached a sermon using Acts 10 and 11 as my basis. That is the story of Peter praying at midday on the rooftop in the city of Joppa. He has a vision in which a sheet comes down from heaven laden with all kinds of animals, clean and unclean (according to Jewish dietary laws), and Peter hears a voice saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” And Peter protests, “Surely not, Lord. Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The voice spoke from heaven a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times. Immediately following, he encounters Cornelius, a Roman centurion who has had his own vision. Long story short, Peter realizes what the vision was trying to tell him: It’s time to change his mind! The gospel is not just for Jews, God’s love is for uncircumcised Gentiles as well. That is absolutely mind-blowing for Peter! It’s against the scriptures. It’s against tradition. But God was doing a new thing and commanding Peter to get on board.
So the gist of my 1978 sermon was this: I am still not quite ready to ordain homosexual individuals, but I am open to the possibility that the Spirit might someday change my mind.
Over the next few years I continued reading the latest Biblical scholarship and scientific research. I met and became friends with several very committed Christian people who happened to be gay. They had undergone extensive therapy and prayer for years and still couldn’t change who they were. I finally came to the conclusion that people simply are born who they are; gay people clearly have God-given gifts for ministry and that we should welcome all God’s children to use their gifts in ministry in ordained positions.
And we should encourage people to form committed relationships. I was happy to bless civil unions.
But marriage?… It somehow didn’t seem right to me to call a same-sex commitment “marriage.” Why? Just pure emotion, tradition, inertia.
Nothing logical about it. I am embarrassed to say that it was only a few years ago that I moved to the point of fully supporting marriage equality.
Another story. My younger brother, John, and I were extremely close growing up. I was so excited when he and his wife started having children. I didn’t have any of my own yet. I loved being an uncle. Many of you had the joy of watching Claire and Jim grow up here at Oak Grove. A couple of GREAT kids! Claire grew up, fell in love with a wonderful man, and married him two years ago. Jim grew up, but when he falls in love he will not be able to marry the one he loves. By the time Jim was three or four years old, I was very sure that he was gay. Jim didn’t choose to be gay. Why shouldn’t Jim be able to share the same right to marriage as his sister does? Jim has told me that a lot of his relatives got married at Oak Grove and it would mean a lot to him to someday be married here.
One comic has said, “Let gays marry. Why shouldn’t they be as miserable as the rest of us?” That may be kind of a funny line. But I’m not miserable. My marriage means the world to me. On Tuesday Kris and I celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary. My marriage is a place of safety, welcome, commitment, companionship, intimacy, trust. That can all happen without marriage. But our relationship is acknowledged, encouraged and celebrated by the world and by the church. Why should Jim be excluded from that acknowledgement, encouragement and celebration because of an accident of birth?
Marriage says “We are family” in a way that no other word does.
About two months ago while flipping through the TV channels one evening I came across a presentation of the Broadway play, Memphis, which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2010. Have any of you seen it? I wasn’t familiar with it, but the TV program was just starting. I was quickly captivated and I watched the entire thing. And then a few weeks ago a touring production came to the Ordway in St. Paul and Kris and I went to it and thoroughly enjoyed it. (Unlike most straight men I love musical theater.) The play is set in the 1950s and is loosely based on the career of a Memphis radio disc jockey. In the musical the lead character is called Huey Calhoun and through the course of the play Huey meets a wonderful singer named Felicia, and eventually they fall in love. Huey asks her to marry him and she says, “Yes. Yes, I love you with all of my heart and I would marry you, Huey, …if I could.” She means, if it were legal. But he is white, and she is black. In Memphis in the 1950s it was against the law for a white person and a black person to marry.
Doesn’t that just make you shake your head in sadness? In amazement? I am utterly confident that fifty years from now—or probably less, maybe half that—almost everyone will be shaking their heads about the current ban on gay marriage in the same way that almost everyone shakes their heads at the ban on interracial marriage of a half-century ago.
Even if this amendment passes, it is just a temporary bump in the road on the way to the inevitable. According to the Gallup Poll (May, 2011) 70% of young people in America favor gay marriage. When the loudest voices opposing gay marriage come from the Church, it’s one more nail in the coffin…of the Church. The Church is brushed aside by the younger generation as being narrow-minded, judgmental and irrelevant.
You sometimes hear the statement, “Gay marriage is a threat to heterosexual marriage.” How so? Two of our very good friends, Suzanne and Diane, were legally married in Massachusetts eight years ago. My wife, Kris, flew out to be in the wedding. We see them socially on a regular basis. Eight years. Their marriage has not affected my marriage one bit. Any more than your marriage (pointing to congregation) or your marriage affects my marriage. Whom you choose to love does not affect whom I choose to love.
Another story. About a woman named Ruth. (I’m indebted to St. Paul theologian David Weiss for this insight.) You (probably) know Ruth’s words, even if you don’t know her story: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” (Where do we so often hear these words?) This is one of the most often quoted texts at straight marriages. But these words were spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi. These words were spoken by a woman whose people, the Moabites, were condemned in the Bible – forever. She has no business pledging – and fulfilling – a vow of faithfulness like God’s own promised faithfulness. But while her love for Naomi was ethnically and culturally odd and her (later) marriage to Boaz (a Hebrew) was religiously dubious, thanks to her odd love and dubious marriage she became the great-grandmother of King David. Her off-limits love became a blessing.
I could give other germane Biblical stories: The stories of Rahab, Hosea, the parable of the Good Samaritan, several women in Jesus’ life, and others. As Weiss notes, “The Bible is full of stories about a God who welcomes surprising people into God’s family. Stories about heroes and heroines whose praise-worthiness lies in their promised faithfulness to another person.” (See Weiss’s book, To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on Sexuality, Spirituality and the Wideness of God’s Welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press).
If you support marriage equality, what can you do? Outfront Minnesota is an organization working to defeat the Amendment. The Outfront folks expect that there will be an onslaught of misleading advertising this summer financed by the Mormon Church and others. An Outfront trainer noted, “We believe that the way forward is not to be found in loud and angry debate with the opposition. We think this only entrenches people. Rather, our research finds that the single most effective way to advance our position is through one to one conversations. So, our strategy over the next months is to facilitate a million conversations. And, we have scheduled numerous trainings to help people plan those conversations, and feel comfortable having them.” You can find information on the Outfront website. Please hold gentle conversations with your friends and neighbors.
Final story. Tuesday afternoon I was toiling away in my study when our receptionist came and knocked on my door to inform me that there was a man here who has just moved from another town and he is looking for a new church and wanted to know about Oak Grove. I’m always eager to tell folks about Oak Grove so I bounded out to greet him. We introduced one another and then walked out into the hall where I started to give him a little tour and tell him about the church. But he stopped just outside the office and interrupted me, “You have a flag out front,” referring to the rainbow flag.
“Yes,” I said. And I was thinking “Hmm. This could go either way.” (I remind you that in 2008 a man came into a church in Tennessee with anger in his heart at what he called “liberal gay-lovers” and he opened fire, wounding seven and killing two.) This was not in the back of my mind; this was in the front of my mind. Was this man in front of me happy that we had the flag or was he here to set me straight, so to speak?
He continued. “Does the flag mean you welcome everyone?”
“Yes, that’s what it means.”
A big grin spread across his face and he pumped my hand again. “That’s what I’m looking for!” And for the next twenty minutes he told me about his spiritual journey and how he had been hurt by some of his previous church experiences. He said he was looking for a church that would preach positive messages and where everyone was welcome. At the conclusion of our conversation he shook my hand again and said, “I’ll see you Sunday at 8:15.” (And he was here. And he received a very warm welcome from you Oak Grovers.)
We are in the season of Eastertide. The essence of Easter is the message that Love wins. Why take the temporary detour of this amendment?
Love will win.