O, For a Thousand Tongues To Sing: A Presentation on Marriage Equality

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Cannon Falls, Minn. 

Bill 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 contract.

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 parents.)

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 partner
  • 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 1960s 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 perspective?

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 one.

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 God.

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 Church.

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 love ethic.

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 itself.

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?