O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing:
A Presentation on Marriage Equality
Rev. Rebecca Voelkel
presented at First Congregational, Cannon Falls, MN,
on December 7, 2005
grew up in Beloit, WI and Fort Wayne, IN. He was the oldest son of a Congregationalist
minister and his wife, and he loved the church. All through his growing
up, he sang in the choir, went to Sunday School, was confirmed by his dad
and attended every potluck that was ever held.
Barry grew up in St. Louis, MO. He was the middle child of a Sunday
School teacher and her husband. He was the bass soloist for the Messiah
starting when he was eighteen. When he decided to go to college, he knew
he wanted to go to a church-related school and then on to seminary.
When Bill met his beloved he knew instantly. He called the next day
to set up dinner. After dinner, he called to say that he had lived the
whole week on their first kiss.
When Barry met his beloved, he thought they were just going to be friends.
But as they spent time together-in choir, hiking and just talking, they
began to know that this was something deeper, something special.
Bill and Barry are now both in their seventies. In many ways, they are
a lot alike. Both have been faithful, loving partners for many decades.
Both have given their lives and ministries to the Church.
But the Church hasn't always loved and accepted their ministries equally.
You see, Bill is my father. He's been married to my mother for nearly
forty years. He retired from being an Association Minister after serving
as a local church pastor, a community organizer, and as conference staff
for many years.
Barry is my good friend. He's been married to his partner, Stan, for
a little over forty years. They've moved around since Barry was asked
to leave seminary because he was gay. He's worked for several different
non-profits, mostly serving the homeless. Ten years ago, they finally
found a church-they'd been searching for years-in which they could be
honest about who they are, be supported and loved and be able to offer
their gifts of leadership.
As we gather tonight, I begin with Bill and Barry because the question
of marriage equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people
is about real people's lives, real people's love.
Too often, when we have a conversation about marriage for lesbian, gay,
bisexual and transgender people, it is in the abstract. But marriage equality
is not an abstract concept, it is concrete and particular. Another example
of this is that the first couple to get married in San Francisco when
Mayor Gavin Newsome allowed same-sex couples to marry was Phyllis Lyon
and Del Martin who had been together for over fifty years.
What we are talking about is two people who love each other, who have
covenanted with one another to intertwine their lives, who have promised
to pay bills together, make home together, pick up the kids from school,
sit together in church, visit each other's families, be family to and
for one another. It is as simple and as complicated as that.
This simple and complicated proposition has both legal and religious
ramifications. But it is imperative that we don't conflate the two. Because
they are two different things.
When we talk about civil marriage, I'd like to suggest that we picture
two people going to a justice of the peace. The building in which the
marriage takes place is a courthouse. The vows they take are about a legal
Civil marriage is about the legal rights and responsibilities two people
have with and for each other. If there are children in the marriage, it
also includes them. (A conservative estimate is that there are at least
2.25 million children being parented by gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered
There are some 1100 rights and responsibilities which are conferred
with civil marriage. They come from local, state and federal governments
and they include:
- Access to employer-provided health and retirement benefits for partner
and nonbiological/adoptive children
- Access to partner's coverage under Medicare and Social Security
- Ability to visit or make medical decisions for an ill or incapacitated
- Right to sue for wrongful death of partner
- Ability to sponsor one's partner for immigration
- Access to health benefits and inheritance from both parents
These sound really dry and boring. But they have very real implications-to
individual couples and to society. Marriage equality benefits society
because it gives families greater economic and social stability which,
in turn, gives the larger culture greater stability and grounding.
But without the benefits, there is real pain and real instability. One
brief example. A friend of ours who lives in Cleveland was not allowed
to claim the body of her partner, with whom she had covenanted for twenty-six
years because they were not legally married. Even though they had done
their wills and written up legal documentation of their partnership, her
partner's brother, who had not spoken to his sister in sixteen years because
he did not approve of her relationship, was the closest blood relative
and, therefore, given custody of the body.
As we talk about civil marriage, then, it is important to remember that
it is about equal access before the law for all citizens of this country.
Again, two people standing before a justice of the peace in a courthouse.
A good example of this is another chapter in the history of civil marriage
in this country. In the 1960's a white man and an African American woman
got married in Washington, DC. When they returned to their home state
of Virginia, they were arrested and thrown in jail. Their names, ironically
were Mr. and Mrs. Loving. The Virginia judge who tried their case said,
in his verdict of their guilt for violating Virginia's miscegenation laws
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red,
and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference
with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The
fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the
races to mix."
Mr. and Mrs. Loving had to flee back to Washington, DC. But they challenged
the judge's ruling. And in 1967, the US Supreme Court ruled that discrimination
in marriage against the Lovings and any couple based on their race was
unconstitutional. Any couple who were citizens in the US were allowed,
under the constitution, equal access to the legal rights and responsibilities
of civil marriage.
So, that is the civil marriage piece of things with its legal ramifications-remember,
Courthouse with a justice of the peace.
But we are more than citizens of the United States, we are people of
faith. We are gathered in a church and we are deeply concerned with the
religious implications and ramifications of marriage equality, too.
So how might we look at the question of marriage equality from a religious
First of all, I'd like for us to think of two people standing before
a pastor in a church. That is the image of religious marriage equality.
With that image, I want to look at religious marriage equality from
three perspectives: a Biblical one, a theological one and a vocational
For me, the Scriptures are Holy. They are the record of all those people
of faith who have gone before me as ancestors. They are the record of
how they struggled with what it meant to be in relationship with God.
They are the record of their attempt to be persons of faith, embodying
their faith in the world.
The Scriptures are the story of my people. They are witness to great
truth, but they are not inerrant. Things that may have been truth for
their context are not necessarily truth for ours. Just as we don't always
get it right when we discern what God is saying to us, our ancestors in
faith didn't always get it right either. And sometimes our understandings
evolve and change with the wisdom that is encountered with each passing
generation. So I revere the Scriptures, but I don't worship them. I worship
the living God who revealed God's self to our ancestors, who revealed
God's self in the person of Jesus Christ and who reveals God's self in
our worship and in our study and in our research and in our prayers.
I think this is important when we go to Scripture for guidance on the
question of slavery, for instance. I do not believe that God supported
chattel slavery with its history of rape, torture and violence. And, thanks
be to God, regardless of what many scriptural passages say about slaves
obeying their masters and submitting to the laws of slavery, some people
of faith-our ancestors among them-stood with the people of the Amistad
and with the abolition movement because they heard the voice of the Stillspeaking
Such was the case with the ordination of women. In 1863, when Antoinette
Brown was ordained a Congregationalist minister, she and her church with
her were vilified. And almost all of the vilification was rooted in scriptural
passages-most from the Pauline letters-about wives submitting to husbands
and women not teaching or preaching to men.
My friends, I believe that we are faced with a similar discernment today.
Marriage in the Bible has many faces. The first texts that we read,
in the first books of the Hebrew Scriptures almost always lift up polygamy
as the model of marriage. One man with many wives. And if we read the
Ten Commandments, particularly the tenth commandment that a man not covet
his neighbor's house, nor his neighbor's wife, or his male or female slave,
or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to his neighbor, we understand
that in that context, marriage was based on the man owning the women he
was married to.
The Bible also lifts up Levirate marriage as a model. That is, if a
man dies and leaves no heirs, his brother is to marry his brother's widow
and have children, so that his brother will have heirs.
We also have the model of celibacy in the Biblical texts. Especially
for the early Christian community, this was by far and away the best model-a
sign of purer faith.
Marriage between one man and one woman is also very much practiced in
the Biblical texts. But these marriages were almost always arranged, based
on the relationships between the families, and involved women being exchanged
from their fathers to their husbands as property.
But our faith is one rooted in the understanding that God is continually
breaking into history, redeeming the world and revealing Godself. From
the earliest stories of the Exodus, God empowers the people to look beyond
the strictures of their context toward the vision of radical love and
justice. Through the prophets, the Psalms, the gospels, the Pauline letters,
the arc of the Scriptural witness is always towards greater hospitality,
greater justice, greater love. The scriptures are not inerrant, but they
tell great truth.
Jesus' ministry was first to the Jewish community, but the Syro-Phoenician
woman challenged him and he grew and learned. The early Christian community
thought that they were only constituted by Galilean Jews, but the Pentecost
experience proved to them that Jews from all over the Mediterranean were
part of their communion. Peter was convinced that he was only to associate
with fellow Jews, but the Spirit came to him in a dream and showed him
that it wasn't what went into a person that made them unclean, but what
came out of a person-and he was convinced to baptize a gentile. Philip,
likewise, understood the faith of the Ethiopian eunuch (a sexual minority
of his day who had been castrated so as to serve in the Queen's Court).
Philip heard his faith and baptized him into the full fellowship of the
All of these examples lead Walter Wink, a Biblical scholar, to say that
the Scriptures do not have one sexual ethic. Rather, the text has an undeniable
Thus, for me, the Biblical imperative is to follow Jesus' commandment
to love God and love your neighbor. So the question becomes not whether
a relationship is to be blessed based on the gender of each partner. But
whether a relationship is to be blessed based on the kind of love and
justice that is exhibited by the individual partners and by the love and
justice the relationship creates.
The second perspective is theological. And when I think theologically,
I can't help but hear Karl Barth, a twentieth century pastor and theologian,
who said that when we preach we must do so with the Bible in one hand
and the newspaper in the other.
When I pick up the newspaper, I am overwhelmed at times. Thirty Iraqi
police trainees killed in the latest suicide bombing. the streets of Paris
on fire. a fourteen year old boy stabbed by his classmates. poor people
left to die in the streets of New Orleans. hundreds and thousands of women
raped in the Darfur region of the Sudan.
We live in a world that is filled with poverty, hatred and unspeakable
violence. It numbs the mind and soul to take it all in.
But, if we are to follow what Karl Barth challenges, we are called to
hold this violence and hatred in our hearts and bodies and respond with
justice and healing and reconciliation.
I believe that one way we do this is to find as many ways to bless and
make sacred the places in which Love reveals itself. If love reveals itself
in a group of women who stand in front of an embassy and demand an answer
to why their husbands and children have been disappeared, the Church ought
to be about blessing their actions. If Love reveals itself in a classroom
of children who make paper cranes so that the dream of Sadako, the Japanese
girl who died of radiation poisoning from Hiroshima, might live-the Church
ought to be about blessing them. And if, by the grace of God, two people
find themselves in a relationship that gives birth to love and makes each
partner more able to be a faithful person in the world, then the Church
ought to be about consecrating and blessing them.
There is too much violence and hatred in this world for us to spend
our time and energy on creating a wall between which kind of love God
blesses and which kind God does not.
Thirdly, I want to lift up our vocation as Christians. As I understand
it, the first measure of our vocation as Christians is that we seek to
be followers of Jesus. In all the gospel texts, Jesus' ministry is consistently
about bringing in the Realm of God-a time when no one would hunger or
thirst and all would have life abundantly. That ministry was left unfinished.
And all Christians are called to help fulfill it.
Anything that stands in the way of our fulfilling our vocation of being
hearkeners of God's realm lessens the whole Christian community and lessens
our ability to be faithful.
When the Church distracts its energies away from bringing in the realm
of God by standing in the way of two people who love each other, it lessens
And when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of faith have
to spend their time defending themselves rather than singing in the choir
or preaching in the pulpit or feeding the hungry or raising faithful children,
they lose some of their vocation and the Church looses a precious gift.
My friends, Charles Wesley got it right when he said, "O for a thousand
tongues to sing, my great redeemer's praise." If there is only one kind
of love to be sung about, something is missing. If there is only one kind
of people doing the singing, something is missing. We need every one of
us singing to begin to articulate the majesty and magnificence of our
God. We need every one of us gathered in communion to be able to be about
the task of participating in bringing in God's realm.
Ultimately, for me, marriage equality is not the end goal, rather it
is about protecting and blessing families so that they can be freed to
greater faithfulness and so that the culture and the church can be blessed
by the breadth and depth of their gifts.
Well, as I said, my dad is a community organizer and a pastor. And he
is very fond of asking two questions.
What do you think about this? By this he means, what does your faith,
what does your life's story, what does your prayer say to you about this?
The second question is: What are you going to do about it? By this he
means that faith requires faithful action.
So I would leave you with these two questions: What do you think about
all this? What are you going to do about it?
Rebecca Voelkel is the Executive Officer at the Institute
for Welcoming Resources.
Copyright © by the author
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