Friday, August 12, 2011

The Journey to Marriage Equality: A Personal Testimony

Sermon preached on Sunday, July 24 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. This was the day when Equal Marriage became law in New York State.

History—at least in the State of New York—is being made today as the Marriage Equality Act becomes law. Bishop Singh issued a statement on Thursday to welcome this day:

As we approach the implementation of the Marriage Equality Act, we rejoice in the extension of civil rights to same-sex couples in New York. We believe this extension to be fully consonant with the Good News of God in Jesus Christ proclaimed by the church.

This extension of marriage equality follows quite naturally with the history of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, which has tirelessly promoted the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the life of the church, including blessing their relationships as a pastoral response in many parish contexts, for almost forty years. While we recognize that there are differing opinions, even within our own church, we want to be clear that these differences do not break the fellowship by which we are bound together. Let us constantly seek reconciliation and act in ways that uphold both our convictions and one another's dignity.

After careful discernment and consultation, we recommend to our parish clergy that they proceed with fully welcoming all couples who seek to enter the marriage covenant of fidelity, mutuality and service. We encourage the celebration and blessing of all marriages in accordance with congregational guidelines.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “but it bends toward justice.”[1] Almost three years ago, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, we rejoiced in a moment when we could actually see the arc bend. This is another such moment.

I am not only personally rejoicing in this moment, I am choosing to live in it, and speak to you in it, and proclaim the Gospel in it, without fear. Like all of you, I am a human being with a complex character. Many parts of me intertwine, none more particularly important than another, to create the unique and whole me that God has made me.

How the world works, however, is that it tends to focus on any part of any one of us that is outside the norm and use that alone to define us. All of you have experienced this at one time or another and it can be very frustrating.

When I came out as a gay man in 1984 during my first year in seminary, a group of students who were gay themselves, took me to see one of our professors, who was also gay, although no one was supposed to know it. We had to have “the talk.” “The talk” was a set of rules that would allow me to be gay behind the scenes in the church and keep me from being gay in front of them.

In other words, I was taught how to live in fear. The consequences of being known publicly as gay were that I would never be able to exercise ordained ministry. “Either play the game or find a different vocation,” I was told quite bluntly.

It will come as no surprise that I was somewhat defiant. I was determined not to be afraid of who I was. But I very quickly began to pay the consequences. And in many ways I have been in a twenty-seven year battle with the church over whether or not I would live my life primarily in fear.

It probably appears that in many ways I have been successful and, indeed, by the grace of God, I have been, but the institutional church has placed as many obstacles in my path as it has encouragement.

At the end of seminary I was told that everything pointed to a real vocation to the priesthood, but that I would have to accept that I would never be a parish priest because of how “out” I was.

As I flourished in my first parish in spite of that prediction, my bishop prepared me for the fact that I would probably never work anywhere else because of how “out” I was.

As I sought to move and felt a real tug toward this parish, I was told that my acceptance as a gay man could not be guaranteed because it was a majority African-American parish—a double dose of stereotyping.

Obviously I successfully defied each of these warnings, but that doesn’t mean I beat the fear.

To make a long story short, here’s the bottom-line. I have never used the word “gay,” or mentioned by spouse, in public in either of my parishes without very carefully weighing the potential costs. And if I slipped and hadn’t done this careful consideration, I lost sleep for days. And every time, whether I planned or slipped, I waited for someone to be angry and probably leave. I have feared being too “in your face.” And many over the years have indeed believed that to be the truth and have moved on.

This fear has also caused me to distance myself from other gay people in both my parishes, fearing to be seen to favor them, and this has been at least part of the cause why there are only half the gay people in this parish now than there were seven years ago when I arrived and we have not had one new gay person join us in all that time although we have been visited by many, most of them couples. But John and I are the only gay couple left.

This is not about blame, by the way. I’m just telling you my experience.

My friends, and I hope after almost seven years, I do not use that word without real meaning, I think I am a good enough priest to know that I have to guard against how I manage relationships in the parish. I can have no favorites and I must be your priest before I am anything else.

But after twenty-seven years, I am tired of being afraid. Does this mean I want to be in your face all the time? No, of course not. I will be sometimes, but that’s part of my job. And I will be about many different things that have to do with our calling to do justice.

It all comes down to this amazing passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which really finishes the argument he began in chapter one. The series of rhetorical questions he asks are vitally important. I’ve given them my own paraphrase:

I’ve made all these arguments, so what is there left to say in the end? What is the bottom line? If God is for us, who is against us? That’s precisely it; anyone who would give up his own Son for us will surely give us everything else, right? Who is going to accuse God’s the people God has chosen by his grace? It is God who justifies, isn’t it, so who is to pass judgment? Here is the good news: it is Christ Jesus, who died for us, was raised for us, who sits for us at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. If he is our judge, than who can separate us from his love for us?

There are so many things in this life that seem to be able to do so: The suffering and distress we undergo, the persecution, natural disasters, or simply living in fear or under threat of our lives. It even says in the psalms that it is for God’s sake we are being killed all day long, like sheep being led to the slaughter. But I do not believe that is true. I believe we shall overcome these things through him who loves us.

For I am absolutely convinced that neither death itself, nor anything that can happen to us in this life, nor supernatural beings, nor earthly authorities, nor the things we are beset with today, nor the uncertain future that lies before us, nor anything we might fear in this life, nor anything else in all creation, will ever be able to separate us from the Love God that belongs to us in Jesus.

I remain a Christian, and an Episcopalian, and a priest of the church because I believe that these things are true.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was fond of saying that if white South Africans had truly not wanted black South Africans to struggle for their freedom, they never should have given them the Bible. It is true, as well, for gay people. The book that seems to condemn us is the book that sets us free, with the help of the Book of Common Prayer, in our tradition.

You see, because when I read of the great patriarch Jacob having two wives and two more concubines, through whom he had twelve children, and these twelve children, no matter the circumstances of their birth, became equally the patriarchs of the tribes of Israel, I believe that God has a long history of dealing with very different family configurations and that marriage has been “re-defined” many times in the history of the people of God.

When Matthew says that the kingdom of heaven will be born out of what is new and what is old, I believe that it is possible for God to take an old thing like marriage and make it new, and advance the kingdom of God.

When I read in the Prayer Book that by my baptism I am “buried with Christ in his death…and share in his resurrection…and reborn by the Holy Spirit,” I believed it.

And when I saw that same Baptismal rite saying that “I am sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” I believed it.

And when I prayed in Eucharistic Prayer B that we have been “delivered from evil, and made…worthy to stand before [God],” I believed it.

And when I heard Jesus say to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, I have overcome the world,”[2] I believed him.

And when I heard him also say, “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all things to myself,”[3] I believed him.

I believed all these things because I never was able to find an asterisk in any of those texts that led me to some fine print that said, “Except gay people.”

Let us rejoice today, not just for a victory won by a small minority of people. Let us rejoice because, in the words I once heard a Lutheran bishop say, “God never changes, but God is always doing a new thing.” This paradoxical God is the God of justice, the God of freedom, and the God who banishes all fear. This is the God who rejoices in the bending of the arc of justice today.

This is the God who loves me and who loves you and who says to both of us, “Do not be afraid. You are my beloved.”

[1] The quote was actually from Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and abolitionist in the 19th century.

[2] John 16:33.

[3] John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32.

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