Let’s Talk about Marriage Equality

A sermon by Pastors John McCall and Elsa Peters, March 15, 2009

Acts 10:34-43
Mark 12:13-17

Truly, God Shows No Partiality
Acts 10:34-43 – In Caesarea, Peter preaches that God shows no favor because of nation, birth or birthright, but favors all who fear God and who do what’s right.

John McCall
When you think of a “church wedding,” you may imagine the beaming and anxious couple, processional, the exchange of vows and of rings, and the highlight as the pastor says: “as we share in your joy, I announce that you are married with the blessing of Christ’s church.”

As the church we see the wedding service as an act of worship – we offer scripture and prayers and we witness the sacred promises the couple make to each other. We do this because marriage is a covenant in which we believe the two parties pledge themselves – by the grace of God – to live together in faith and integrity. I love this part of our ministry. It’s a special privilege.

Let’s remember that most couples who have a “church wedding” come to the church with a license so they can be married under the laws of the state, with all the attendant privileges and responsibilities. Marriage by the state is a legal contract, requiring only two things: first the couple must prove they are free to obtain a license; second, the couple, two witnesses, and an authorized officiant must sign the license. Law doesn’t require any ceremony, any spoken vows, or anything else – just the names on the proper lines — a legal contract.

I’ve come to believe that my role in signing the state-issued license compromises my role as pastor in this church, primarily because I believe that Maine state laws regarding marriage are unjust. Current law excludes same-gender couples from receiving the rights and privileges offered to heterosexual couples. For many Christians that’s perfectly fine – that’s just the way they believe God wants it to be. I don’t.

The Maine State Legislature will soon consider a bill entitled “An Act to End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom.” This act would extend marriage equality to same gender couples, and affirm that religious institutions will continue to have full control over their doctrine and teaching about who can marry and who can not.

A vocal group, led by the Maine Family Policy Council, formerly “The Christian Civic League of Maine,” vows to fight any change in Maine law; and should it pass they intend to bring it to a referendum in November. They believe they should be able to decide for every citizen of the state of Maine, who can be married and who can’t. They think they speak for all Christians. They’re wrong.

Many of you remember, as vividly as I do, the path our congregation has walked over the past ten or more years. In the year 2000, we the members adopted our Open and Affirming statement with a majority over 80%. In 2002, after more deep and difficult soul-searching, we the members authorized your pastors (in their sole discretion) to offer the church’s blessing to couples who seek it, in light of their Christian faith, without requiring that they have a license from the state. That was a painful time and about 60% approved the action. Many good members felt their church had turned away from them and some of them left. Some of you deeply disagreed with the decision, but you’re here, and almost every Sunday. I respect that, and you, very much.

I also know that many who have joined in the past ten years have been drawn, in part, by our commitment to be and Open an Affirming church. What we did on that day was to say we, the church, have principles and convictions that may be different from the laws of the state. In the seven years since our church’s vote we’ve had about 55 weddings in our sanctuary. In each case one of your pastors has offered the church’s blessing. Seven of those couples did not have a license, either because they are same-gender, or are heterosexual couples who already had a civil marriage before coming for a service of blessing here.

I understand that even the concepts I’m suggesting feel foreign and dangerous to many of you. So let’s turn to our scripture from the Book of Acts, where we read of Peter the Apostle, Peter the “Rock,” on whom Jesus said he would build the church. Peter was a Jew and knew that it was against the laws of Torah for a Jew to associate with a Gentile. But then he had a powerful dream, and vision, and heard God telling him that something new was happening. In that dream Peter heard a voice tell him: “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” {Acts 10:9-16}

Imagine Peter’s amazement and dismay when his understanding of right and wrong was first challenged and then turned upside down… not by his detractors, but by God. Then, in Acts 10:28 Peter said to Cornelius, a non-Jew: “You yourself know it’s unlawful for a Jew to associate with the Gentile. But God has shown me I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

Like Peter, we easily come to believe that our way of understanding God, worshiping God, serving God is Right. Like Peter, we can become quite confident of our certainties that we KNOW what God wills, what God intends, and whom God blesses. Then (and we’ve seen it over and over) while we’re busy guarding the borders, God breaks into our certainty and upsets the apple cart. We do well to keep our minds and hearts open to movements of the Spirit, even when they challenge our deeply-held certainties.

I believe that’s exactly what’s happening right now around the issue of marriage equality, and that I have the opportunity to witness to my faith and to scripture by no longer signing marriage licenses.

Marriage is a Gift of God
Mark 12:13-17 – Jesus challenges the Pharisees to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.

Elsa Peters
When I stand before a couple as the officiant at their wedding, I begin with these words from the United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

Marriage is a gift of God, sealed by a sacred covenant. God gives human love. Through that love, two persons come to know each other with mutual care and companionship. God gives joy. Through that joy, they may share their new life with others as Jesus shared new wine at the wedding in Cana.

On their wedding day, after spending several hours with these two people asking about their communication styles, their childhood wounds and their family history, I stand there with joy, because as it says in the Book of Worship, God gives joy. It’s through that joy that two people can start a new life journeying together in marriage. I don’t change the word. I never have. I used the same words for the two transsexuals I blessed on top of Mount Battie that I used for the man and woman united in this sanctuary. When two lesbians stood before me ready to make this covenant, I didn’t falter. I started as the Book of Worship leads: Marriage is a gift of God. The word doesn’t change because love doesn’t change. Certainly, marriage is about more than love. It’s about commitment and partnership. It’s about vows and honesty and all of the things that I ask the couple about before their wedding day. It’s my role to proclaim that marriage if a gift of God, but when I do that, I ensure that whoever they are, these two people understand what marriage is.

I don’t think that there is any one answer, but I do believe with my whole heart that marriage is a sacred covenant. It’s this sacredness that gives me any authority to officiate at weddings. The state complicates my role by making it a legal contract, but as our kids are learning in Sunday School today, God’s covenant is not about rules. God’s covenant is a way to encourage liberating and life-giving experiences full of joy. When I moved to Maine and prepared to officiate at my first wedding, I was shocked to find that the state didn’t require any credentials other than the date of my ordination. That’s all the state needs to know. Just the date I was ordained. Now, I was ordained by a group of people in New York. In the United Church of Christ, we are not ordained by some hierarchical structure, but by a group of people. Ordinary church people that believe in the gifts of God. They may be good, law abiding citizens (and most of them probably are) but they are just church people without any power beyond their right to vote in this country. They’re just church people, like me, on the way to joy.

So, when Jesus says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17); I pay attention. I pay attention because my authority is as an ordained minister of the gospel, that is, the things that are God’s. A group of ordinary church people ordained me because of their faith in the gifts of God. I serve this faith community in South Portland because of our collective belief in God. Our community is not untouched by the rest of the world, but we’re striving to live faithfully into the gifts of God. As a faith community, we seek to recognize concrete moments where the gifts of God are tangible and present – like in marriage. It’s a legal transaction for the state, but not for us. For us, marriage is a gift of God. It’s a way to joy. We’re not separate from these legal systems anymore than Jesus was. He points to the coin that Pharisees hold and asks about the engraved image. The Pharisees, teachers of the law, should know better. This coin has the emperor’s face on it. Torah forbids images so this coin cannot be used for the temple tax. And so, the coin belongs to the emperor. Jesus pushes this further. It’s not only give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. The Pharisees might have guessed that. It’s more than that, Jesus says, give the things that are God’s to God. This is the challenge. What is God’s is not separate from what is the emperor’s. It’s a challenge because nothing can be neat and tidy. We can’t separate the things that are the emperor’s from those that are God’s. It’s all one big mess because really what we’re talking about is love. Love isn’t neat and tidy. It can’t be separated. It’s just messy because it’s about people.

That’s why I love Jesus. He challenges us to imagine how our understanding of faith should be reflected in all things, not just some things, or in churchy things, but in all things for all people. That’s our challenge. We’re not emperors. We’re not the lawmakers. We’re not supposed to be. We are only supposed to remember that because we believe in the gifts of God, we try to give God’s justice to all of the things that are God’s. That’s why I love my ministry here among this congregation. We’re not afraid to take up this challenge even when it comes to something as complicated as marriage – because we know it’s really about people and how we love people.

That’s what marriage is. It’s about those two people that commit themselves to love. This is a marriage – whether the couple is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or transsexual. This is a marriage because they are choosing to love this person beside them in mutual care and companionship, as it says in introductory words of the Book of Worship. And on the day of their commitment, with trust you have given me in this congregation, I stand before these two people to say: Marriage is a gift from God.

My authority is given to me by the United Church of Christ – not the state, not the government, not the law. I am there on their wedding day because I’m ordained in a Christian tradition and serving a congregation that believes love is experienced in all human relationships. I stand there to proclaim that love. That is my task. My authority doesn’t go beyond that day. I can’t do anything when about their employee benefits, their child rights or their inheritance. I don’t get to make these legal definitions. The authority this congregation has entrusted in me allows me offer a blessing to all couples, but I don’t get to control what happens afterward. That’s why I’ll continue to use that word. Marriage. I’m going to begin each wedding with the same words: Marriage is a gift of God. I will there to witness to love. I will celebrate God’s blessing in this union, but I will no longer do this as an agent of the state. I will not sign another marriage license until all God’s children are guaranteed the same rights for marriage under Maine law. Until that day, I will rely solely on my authority in the United Church of Christ and offer the blessings of God.

John McCall
In closing let me revisit a few things Elsa and I want to make clear:
1) Elsa and I believe this step we take is completely consistent with the majority vote of our members in 2000 and 2002.
2) We look forward to working with any couples coming to us for a church wedding, regardless of whether they have a state-issued marriage license. We’ll sign and present them a certificate celebrating the church’s blessing, as we always have.
3) For those couples already working with us in planning weddings for this year, we’ll sign their state marriage licenses, and
4) As we begin counseling with couples looking further ahead for their weddings, we’ll work with them so the state’s requirement can be met by providing another authorized signer here at the church on their wedding day if they so choose.

Finally, we invite you to conversation with us both today in Davidson Lounge, and in the weeks and months to come. Let’s always pray that we’re open to God and to each other so together we can be more faithful as we live what we believe in this complicated world that God loves so much.