Last week I received an email from a guest who was here last Sunday with his partner and his partner’s mother for Mother’s Day. He was very upset that on Mother’s Day we would discuss political matters, and made it very clear that he would not be back today for marriage equality—he assumed that since we are a church and we’re speaking on the issue it would be hostile. I invited him back, assuring him we would take a broader approach, that if Christians do not speak about issues in the world it leaves only the loud, obnoxious ones to speak for everyone, but never heard back from him. I hope he’s here somewhere!
I intentionally formulated the issue today as marriage equality, as opposed to homosexuality in general, for several reasons. The primary reason is this: homosexuality, as I understand it, is not an issue to be debated—we’re talking about people here. There are all sorts of theories and ideas about homosexuality—where does it come from? Is it a choice—a lifestyle—or is there some sort of natural inclination toward the same sex that a certain proportion of the population has? Is it learned behavior—and if so, can it be unlearned? Is it a sin? Is there a conspiracy within the gay community that threatens the rest of us? Should gay Christians be celibate or should they embrace their sexuality? Is there a fundamental difference between married couples and unmarried couples in committed, long-term relationships—gay or straight? These issues, and so many more, could fill up weeks of sermons, and at the end we would probably feel about as frustrated as many of us do today. I am not a sociologist, so all I can say based on my limited understanding and research is that there is no consensus opinion out there about the sociological and psychological roots of homosexuality. What we know is this: homosexuality is not a modern invention—it’s an established reality in the history of human sexuality. There is some evidence of tendencies showing up early in some children. And it is virtually impossible for a person to change their sexual orientation. I can say, based on conversations I have had with parishioners and friends alike, the universal response to the question of choice or lifestyle has been absolutely no, that they were... Wait. I will not quote Lady Gaga in a sermon!
Last summer we offered a sermon series called “Christians Behaving Badly.” I read the book UnChristian, which studied statistics and demographic trends of young people. The author’s conclusion—let me note that he is a conservative, evangelical Christian—is that young people think of Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay. He argues in the book that this impression must be changed for the future of the church—the reality is: gay rights is a non-issue for younger generations. Yet in the book the pastors and leaders he interviews for strategies going forward all shared a similar theological perspective as the author: of course homosexuality is a sin, but Christians are all sinners in need of forgiveness. Everyone should be welcome to hear and accept God’s grace and love regardless of who they are. I kept raising my hand to the book, and another one I read this week, to ask: is it possible to have a sound theological argument that does not conclude with sentences like, “Of course homosexuality is a sin, the Bible says so.”?
There are a handful of scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments, that seem to forbid same-sex relations. The tendency with regard of these scriptures of those within this debate is to either throw them at their opponents, or, for those on the other side, to dismiss them outright. I’ve said this before many times: any time someone begins a sentence with “The Bible says…” duck. Run for cover. Seek shelter immediately. I heard someone say recently that Leviticus 20:13 is the only commandment anyone notices from the entire book today. Does that mean we should throw out the whole thing? Or the wonderful book of Romans—one of my favorites—should we throw out the whole thing based on 1:27-28? We cannot do that. We affirm that the Bible has ultimate authority in our pursuit of God, and contains all we need to know for our salvation. But sometimes we place burdens on the Bible that do not properly belong there. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books of truth about God, and each book represents a community from its own context and history. People today try to pin their own need for understanding on the Bible, and unintentionally force it to perform a function not of its purpose.
For example, the Book of Genesis begins with two creation accounts, which describe totally different understandings of God and humanity. Most Christians, not all, but the great majority—read Genesis not as a scientific account of creation, but as a poetic metaphor, highlighting the rightful relationship between a loving Creator and the created order, which includes us, a relationship ultimately broken by sin. So one could argue that the texts so often used as scripture bombs by one side or ignored by the other do not presuppose a modern knowledge of human sexuality but reflect the attitudes of a particular people in a certain time and space. For example, in the Romans 1 text, Paul condemns all kinds of abhorrent behavior he has witnessed in Roman society, a culture known for excess and moral depravity. Is it fair to Paul to say his words were meant to condemn people forever, regardless of changes in understanding of human behavior? One could reasonably make the argument that just as we do not consider Genesis a physics textbook we could also not expect Leviticus or Romans to be guidebooks for human sexuality. Does this diminish the Bible’s ultimate authority in any way? One could argue that using the Bible in ways it may not have been intended does more to undermine its authority. It should be noted here that for the great majority of Christians who oppose homosexuality or marriage equality on religious grounds this, not bigotry, is the primary issue: the authority of scripture. To be sure, there are Christian bigots who use the Bible as a weapon against others, and their behavior should be universally condemned as hypocritical and judgmental. But when those on the other side of the debate demonize and make caricatures of their opponents as bigots do they not commit the same sin?
The issue of marriage equality is complicated for Christians on all sides.
One of the primary reasons this question has received so much attention recently is the break-neck speed at which public opinion has changed about marriage for same sex couples. In your study guide there is a graph created by the Pew Research Center that highlights the changes. In just 2001, 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while 35% supported it. Look at today’s numbers—47% support, and 43% oppose. There have been dramatic changes across generations, except for my own, those born 1965-1980, which has consistently split 50/50 over time. The silent generation, those born 1928-1945, have increased their support of same-sex marriage by 10%. Baby boomers, born 1946-64, 7%; the biggest level of support is from the millennial generation, those born after 1981, who favor marriage equality at 63%. Support among Democrats and Independents has increased, 16% and 9% respectively, and Republicans increased by 2%. However, when people identified by persuasion rather than party, self-identified conservatives increased their support 7% since 2011.
We’ve heard lots of rhetoric about a war on traditional marriage; President Clinton even signed so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in 1996, which clearly defines marriage as between a man and a woman. State after state seems to be joining the fight on one side or the other. New York State began marrying gay couples last summer. A couple of weeks ago the state of North Carolina passed an amendment to its constitution banning gay marriage, but it was much more far-reaching than that—it gave its blessing to only married couples. So unmarried heterosexual couples do not enjoy the same domestic rights as married heterosexual couples. There are several challenges to the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” making their way through the courts. Many proponents of marriage equality argue that until the federal ban is lifted, what individual states decide doesn’t really matter. My marriage to Christy is honored in all fifty states; however a same-sex couple that marries in Connecticut and then moves Florida loses whatever was gained at their marriage because of the federal law. I sat down with several same-sex couples here at Oak Lawn to hear their stories for this sermon. Some of these couples enjoyed the blessing of family and friends on their relationship, while others do not. They all echoed the same sentiment: none of them needs a certificate from the state to validate their relationship, but they all wish they enjoyed the same rights as heterosexual married couples. Same sex couples cannot file taxes jointly. If one person dies the other does not automatically receive the Social Security benefit of their partner. Determining insurance benefits for children or partners is difficult, if not impossible, where for me it’s a phone call or a couple of mouse clicks. If one becomes seriously ill, the other is not considered legal next of kin by the state. Imagine the horrifying life event of a family who does not support a relationship making decisions for their loved one without having to consult with that person’s partner. Should the state guarantee decision making rights for critical events like health care and children to some of its citizens and exclude others from the same rights?
For all the talk we hear of defending traditional marriage we’re really thinking about the modern conception of marriage. In other words, if you are a woman, you do not want a traditional, biblical marriage. Polygamy was practiced by many of the Bible’s leading figures. Marriages were often arranged. Women in biblical times had little rights, and what rights they did have were due to their relationships with men—husbands, fathers, and sons. A man could divorce his wife easily, but women were often forced to remain in abusive marriages. Adultery and divorce were a major issue in Jesus’ day—he spoke of both frequently, while he never said anything about homosexuality. Jesus himself never married, and neither did Paul. In fact, Paul, the one we turn to for advice in sexual matters, said we should not marry unless our sexual appetites were out of control. Paul had no interest in earthly rites that would distract the believer from the imminent return of Jesus. Marriage as we understand it today, in terms of a life-long commitment based on love and blessed by the church, only dates to a few centuries ago. If we want to protect marriage, let’s have real dialogue about the dangers of adultery and divorce. I’m not against divorce as a right of both parties in a marriage—but how can we work to reduce the 35-50% of marriages that end in divorce? Let’s consider whether it should be as easy as it is to begin—and end—a marriage. Defending an institution by excluding people who want to join it just does not make sense.
Some have offered civil unions as a compromise—in fact, the governor of Colorado recently called a special session of the Legislature to consider civil unions instead of gay marriage—but it died in committee. Civil unions do not promise any of the benefits of marriage, but more than that they do not bestow the blessing of God upon the relationship. In our marriage covenant service we remind the couple of Jesus’ presence at a wedding in Cana of Galilee and that marriage is meant to reflect the love of Christ for the church. We pray these words: “Enable [the couple] to grow in love and peace all their days, that they may reach out in concern and service to the world.” “Send your blessing upon [this couple], that they may surely keep their marriage covenant, and so grow in love and godliness together that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace.” We end with these words: “God the eternal keep you in love with each other, so that the peace of Christ may abide in your home.” These words remind the couple, and all present, that marriage is a sacred covenant. It takes hard work to build a great marriage. The most rewarding work there is. If marriage is to be thought of as a sacred covenant, meaning it is rightfully practiced in the church, could we not consider a model I read about in Holland (I know, it’s Europe, but still…). All couples—gay or straight—go to a magistrate for a civil union. They are guaranteed all rights. Then if they want to be married they go to a church and the church decides if it will perform the ceremony or not. This preserves the church from the demands of the state, which cannot force the church to perform a service contrary to its doctrine.
Pastors in the United Methodist Church are forbidden to perform same-sex weddings or civil unions, even in those states where they are legal. Our recent General Conference unfortunately continued wording in our Discipline that defines homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” language that is almost as old as I am and has somehow survived. “Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained in the United Methodist Church. These are all stances I personally disagree with. I believe their theological understanding is limited. Yet I am charged with upholding the Discipline as an Elder in the church. I will do that. During the debate I was reminded of the words of Bishop Alfred Norris, who laid his hands on me at my ordination. He preached a sermon years ago, recalling a segregated Methodist church. He said, “I’m not leaving until we get this right.” Historically institutions are very slow to change, particularly when threats of division come from all sides. At the General Conference, even legislation basically saying the issue is very complicated and we don’t all agree on it went nowhere. As we read from Romans a couple of weeks ago, “Hope that is seen is not hope.” We wait with hope. Out of all the frustration surrounding General Conference there is a sign of hope. A service of healing from the brokenness at General Conference is being put together for Wednesday May 30, 6:30 p.m., at Grace UMC in East Dallas. The service is not particularly focused on homosexuality but on our denomination’s present state of being. And it’s being organized by young, hopeful United Methodists—much younger than myself—who see brokenness and are unwilling to leave until we get this right. I plan to attend the service and invite you to do so as well.
There are several texts that are popular for use at weddings, one of which is from Romans 12: 9-18: “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Another popular text at weddings is 1 Corinthians 13, part of which says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Love never ends. Many same sex couples would say they do not need the state or the church or any individual to bless their relationships because they are grounded in love that never ends: God’s love for every single person, regardless of age, sex, race, sexual orientation, relationship status, or any other category we can imagine.
One could make the argument that the work on this sermon began not just when the series was conceived three months ago, but when the news came to Christy and me that we would be appointed to Oak Lawn UMC. One could argue that the sermon was written when a same-sex couple with children approached Pastor Kerry after my appointment was announced and asked if they would still be welcomed here. One could argue the message was written as I walked alongside our float in the Alan Ross Freedom Parade last September. One could argue that this message was formulated when, last October, we noticed messages quoting scriptures condemning homosexuality written on an upstairs dry eraseboard. One could say this message was being written when I sat down with the editor and a staff writer of the Dallas Voice a couple of weeks ago to invite collaboration between Oak Lawn and the newspaper. One could argue the sermon was written during the recent United Methodist General Conference, as the denomination’s official stance on homosexuality was continued. One could argue the sermon was written around a table with other like-minded pastors recently as we discussed the future of our denomination. One could argue the sermon has been written every Sunday as I stand before you to affirm that we do welcome, honor, and love everyone, and in every email I have received over the last twelve months saying something like, “I’ve been looking for a church like this where I could be loved and welcomed for the longest time.”
I’ve been present at several meetings recently here at the church where we’ve discussed how to generate more wedding business. Well…There are probably easier ways to do that than repealing federal law, changing the state constitution, and changing the policy of a denomination of eight million members. The absolute truth is: every Christian, individual, church, community, whatever, is soul searching on the issue of marriage equality. President Obama expressed his support recently and the NAACP endorsed gay marriage just yesterday. Public opinion has changed so rapidly—perhaps faster than any other issue in modern history—that churches must respond. Some will say, as Paul warned us in the text we read from Romans 12, to not be “conformed to the world.” Just because public opinion is headed in one direction doesn’t mean we should all jump on the train. Others will continue the quotation of Paul to finish: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.” Whatever our position on same-sex marriage, or the government’s position, or the denomination’s position, let us “outdo one another in showing mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” “If it is possible, so far as it depends on [us], let us live peaceably with all.” The ultimate goal, as we’ve said from the very beginning of the series, is to seek unity in a divided world. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.