Exchanging Caution for Courage – Same Sex Marriage & College Park
Sermon by Michael Usey
February 24, 2014
Scripture: Hebrews 13: 1-6 & Song of Songs 8: 6-7
When my mother, a life-long Baptist from North Georgia wanted to marry my father, a Roman Catholic Cajun from South Texas, they had a problem. No one would perform the ceremony in Georgia in January 1946. They had met on Saint Simon’s Island, my mother a schoolteacher, my dad a Navy aviator. Both sets of ministers declined to participate, and, while a justice of the peace could have married them, neither wanted that option. Finally, after much searching and meeting with priests and pastors, they found one priest who would marry them. Moments before the mass was to begin, the priest gave my mother a paper for her to sign, promising to raise her children as Catholics. This was not a promise she kept, nor did she feel guilty about it, since she felt bush-wacked by that sneaky priest. As a Baptist, she felt she had the right to decide where she would raise her kids.
Since this difficulty in finding someone to marry my parents was a part of my family’s meta-narrative, I developed a soft-heart towards couples who had no one to marry them. (This in no way should be taken to mean that I’ll marry anyone who comes to me requesting it. Quite the contrary, I decline more weddings than I accept, and so do my colleagues.)
I want to talk with you about Christian same sex marriage, and our church’s role with it. This is not a sermon about homosexuality, the bible, and Christian ethics. I’ve covered that before with you, and it’s available on our website. I have provided you written copies of this sermon, as I always try to do when the subject is controversial. I do this so that, if you take issue over lunch with a point I made, then let it be over something I actually said, and not something misremembered. My email is on the sermon text for those who prefer than avenue. Let me be clear: this is a Christian church in the Baptist tradition, and you are free to believe what you wish about this crucial issue; whether you agree with me or not—you are welcome here.
I was cruising on the Bosphorus (the Istanbul strait) on a Turkish ferry (wait, that doesn’t sound right) in late November with a good friend who is a leader in European Baptist life. The day was amazing, sunny, the water a deep teal, and we were stuffed from a lunch of fresh fish sandwiches, when he asked me, “Why do progressive American Baptists care about same sex marriage?” Since we’ve known each other for a while, we talk in the short hand good friends often do. “Well,” I said, “Once I was convinced that homosexuality was not a sin, and that one could be actively gay and be a faithful follower of Jesus, then marriage was the logical outcome. So it becomes a justice issue for us, that all God’s people are able to pair-bond with the one they love before God. Besides, we’re convinced that this is exactly where God’s wild spirit has led us.” So we spent the afternoon talking about this very issue, while we watched the jellyfish float and the mosques slip by. Neither he or I believe homosexuality to be inherently sinful, but I told him it went farther than that for me; that I had come to understand that it wasn’t just that one’s sexual orientation wasn’t sinful, but that the variety of non-exploitive love relationships and their sexual expressions were divine blessings, and deserving of the church’s blessing too. It was a fine afternoon.
In the call to worship, we read together the type of affirmation of marriage that we often use to begin a Christian marriage ceremony here at College Park. In our tradition, the service is built around three sets of promises: the declaration of intent, the marriage vows, and the ring vows. Of course, there is often special music, scripture readings and poetry, prayers and blessings, fancy clothes, flowers, candles, a cute flower girl and ring-bearer, sometimes even a dog. But the three promises are the crux of the service.
The declaration of intent is, “Understanding that God has created, ordered, and blessed the covenant of marriage, is it your desire and intent to enter into this covenant?” To which the betrothed responds, “I do.” The families of these two also make promises to pray for and to support them; then all those witnessing their vows are asked to make the same promise. In this way the wedding become worship, and audience become participants.
I chose the Hebrews 13 passage because of the wonderful grouping of admonitions: “Let mutual love continue,” which of course is the essence of healthy Christian community and a good marriage. It’s followed by commands for hospitality to strangers and visiting people in prison, and helping those who are being tortured. (This sounds so contemporary.) Then this wonderful phrase: “The marriage bed is undefiled, and should remain so,” which was interpreted to me growing up as meaning, in marriage, everything between two married, consenting adults is pure. It was an alluring thought, that Christian marriage was the proper sexual playground for adults. This is then coupled with a warning against greed, and an assurance of fearlessness, due to God’s continued presence.
The short Song of Songs passage is one of my favorites for weddings. It’s part of the holy erotic love poem that is the Song of Songs, and I love saying that phrase at weddings, in part to wake people up and in part to remind everyone that sex and holiness properly go arm-in-arm. If the speaker in the Song of Songs is a young woman who has been conscribed into the king’s harem, then maybe she is remembering the shepherd boy whom she truly loves. Love is a fierce scorching blaze; love is stronger than death, and outlasts it; love is raging flood; and love is richer than wealth. Four seldom-read biblical metaphors that are love’s essence; perfect for a wedding.
In January 2012, over two years ago, I asked our personnel committee to clarify their position on the ministers of College Park performing same-sex marriages. I wasn’t required to do this, you understand, but I wanted every thing we do here to be above reproach, and I understand from experience that church leadership doesn’t appreciate surprises. Personnel said they’d be happy to study it and asked me for my thoughts; so I gave them these six.
- First, I asked them to clarify what services does College Park offer her members. We offer funeral services, bible study, counseling, child care, spiritual guidance, worship services, child dedication, adult choir, youth choir, children’s choirs, hand-bells & tone-chimes, meals, just to name a few—and of course we perform marriages. All these services for all our members.
- The second thing I wanted to know: Are any of our bylaws gender specific?Do our bylaws make any mention of these services being offered only to heterosexuals?No, none is specified. All members should be able to receive all services. (And, in a very real way, this settles the issue.)
- Thirdly, I reminded them that in our church (as in almost all churches), ministers have always had the right to decide whom we will and will not marry. Note that we do not decide who may and who may not get married, only whether or not he or she will perform the wedding. This is how several Baptist churches resolved same sex marriage: the minister simply stated that he was the only one who decided whom he would marry, and went ahead with it. While this is one extreme I wanted to avoid, it is completely true that we ministers decide which weddings we will or will not perform. This prerogative has always belonged in our wheelhouse.
- Fourthly, I pointed out that in most every Baptist church (whether fundamentalist or liberal), Baptist ministers do not consider themselves functionaries of the state.Baptists are Christians with authority issues, and we hate with a passion being told what to do by anyone other than God. The wedding and unions we perform are sacred religious covenants, not civil ceremonies. True, we may sign the NC wedding certificate, but we are suspicious of any church-state entanglement, and the signing is AFTER the religious service, which is the proper order in how we view it.
- Fifth point: most weddings are private worship services; in only a few cases is everyone from an entire church invited. It’s your choice to attend or not, so there is no exclusion of anyone from a regular worship service. Weddings are optional, usually private services.
- Lastly (and relatedly), since performing a wedding for same sex couples is a controversial new practice, this should remain a matter of individual conscience. This goes both for our church ministers who might perform a same sex wedding, and for whomever might attend. As I said in the beginning, all of us here are free to believe whatever we believe God has led us to on this issue.
Armed with those six considerations, our personnel committee spent months discussing this. I did not attend their discussions—I could have, but I chose not to, to allow them free discussion. During this time, for the entire fall of 2012, we had an in-depth bible study with talkback on marriage on Wednesday night to which everyone was invited. Each night we began by discussing in small groups a biblical passage. Then we featured numerous couples—both gay and straight—as they talked about their relationships, the good parts and the difficult times too. It was excellent: honest, funny, theological, real. Kudos to those attended and studied and especially who were interviewed.
I asked for clarification of this policy by our personnel committee, and they brought one to our deacons. After more discussion there, this is what both groups passed in November 2012:
Church ministers are empowered by the congregation to perform, as they deem appropriate, ceremonies that sanctify the commitment and love between couples, including but not exclusive to people within the church membership.
Part of the discussion with the deacons vis-à-vis personnel was both groups concern that our church not become a wedding chapel. I shared with them two insights that I think allayed their fears. First, most ministers do not love officiating weddings. The ones we do love doing are the ones of people whom we are deeply involved with, namely church members. But a wedding takes up most of one’s entire weekend. The prep beforehand, the Friday night rehearsal and dinner afterwards, and the wedding itself and the reception eat up time we could be spending with our families: deeply worth it for people we know and love; totally not worth it for strangers. And, unlike funerals in which family members normally act out AFTER the funeral, difficult family members likely act BEFORE or DURING a wedding. Secondly, I let deacons and personnel know that we turn down numerous wedding requests annually here at College Park. Our church plant is directly across from UNCG; students wander over here all the time wanting to be married. To most of these, we say no. (Incidentally, the main criterion is whether or not the couple can take my role as a minister seriously; we don’t do secular services.) So, in sum, we are not in any danger of marrying just anyone who asks it of us (unless we could find an excellent Elvis impersonator.)
Personnel reported this clarification to the church during a business meeting in March 2013, almost a year ago. So, to recap, over two years ago, at my request, our personnel committee discussed our staff’s role in same sex marriages, and came up with a policy clarification. This was presented to, discussed, and affirmed by our deacons, then presented to the church. Additionally, for four months in 2012, we held bible studies, discussions, talkback, and testimony on our theology of marriage.
Now let me address directly some of the concerns that you might be having. First, some of you may be thinking, “Wait, you mean College Park has never yet performed a same sex wedding?” We have not, partly because we needed to have the very discussion that we’ve been having for the last two-plus years. And, partly because I wanted us to move slowly if we were going to do something relatively new in the history of Christianity. But this is where God’s spirit has led us now, and I believed we’ve moved here largely as a congregation. Victor Hugo said, “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
Others of you may be wondering, is it legal for us to do this, since Amendment One in now NC law? I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot give legal advice. But yes, it is legal for us to hold most any type of religious service we think appropriate. Our sacred ceremony carries no force of law or legal standing.
Some of you may be saying, “Look, I don’t care what our church (or any other congregation) does until marriage is legal for everyone. A religious service without legal acceptance lacks the force of law; a church service is a placebo at best.” Even so, from my Baptist perspective, a Christian service in which Ann and I made solemn promises before friends, family, and God has more binding power than any court of law could provide. Because I believe God is real and that God is love, I believe that a three-fold cord (the two people and God) is not easily broken. Nevertheless, most here will not stop working and praying for the day in which every American adult has the right to wed whomever they love—and our fight against Amendment One two years ago gives teeth to this statement.
Others of you might wish that I would not call same sex unions marriage or consider themweddings. Again, I think I understand this point, but let me gently remind us that one person doesn’t get to decide for another what we call or consider this; it’s for each individual couple to decide. Theologically this is marriage we’re talking about, be it between gay or straight partners. And here at College Park we are definitely not afraid of words. If it looks like a wedding, if is sounds like a marriage, if it seems like a worship service, then I’d say it’s all three.
Perhaps there are a few of you that wish we had voted as an entire church on whether or not College Park ministers would perform same sex weddings. There are several crucial reasons I did not lead us in that direction. First, we don’t vote on matters of worship here, like communion or baptism or weddings. One of the central purposes of worship is bring us together before God—and you absolutely cannot do that if you’re bitter that your side lost the communion vote. A vote encourages divisiveness. Secondly, the point was to treat all our members the same, and no one here votes on any heterosexual couple’s right to wed. The right to be married by clergy was already laid out in our bylaws. If you’re married, no one voted on whether or not you could get married (although many of us wanted to vote on Wayne & Susie’s.) Equality before God is a distinctly Christian virtue, which we will not violate.
Thirdly , I wanted to avoid both extremes, which seems to me to be how several well-meaning sister churches went astray (the extremes being, on the one hand, only the pastor made this decision, and the other hand, the entire church voted whether or not fellow members had the right to be wed.) Both violated the consciences of all of us who are deeply committed to the right of the individual believer to make his or her decisions before God.
Lastly, it would have been unjust for us to vote on something God gave for all of us. As we all affirmed at the beginning of the service, God gave us marriage for the joy of full sexual expression, for companionship, for emotional survival with another human with whom we might grow up and old, and in whom we might see the face of God. This cannot be withheld from another person by heterosexual fiat or a notion of privilege; it is all our right to be joined with another before God.
My wedding ceremony to Ann was a wonder; my friends wondered why Ann would marry me. It began of course long before the first day of summer 1986, at least as far back when I asked her to marry me in front of Tidwell Hall on Baylor’s campus, the exact spot that we first met. My groomsmen were many of my best minister friends, guys that are still in my life: Greg Mobley, Chuck Rush, Charles Massey, Judy Skeen, Mark Jappe—and my brother was my best man. We were married at First Baptist Birmingham, Michigan, an American Baptist Church there, and my mentor Sam Williams presided.
We were married at noon on a sunny Saturday, accompanied by a fantastic cellist—sadly she did not know any AC/DC tunes. We sang Beethoven’s Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, and heard a soloist give a soulful version of How Can I Keep from Singing. Both sets of parents stood with us. It was the last family wedding my father-in-law was alive for, and it was his best. The reception was a sit-down dinner at the Novi Hilton, which Ann’s brother-in-law owned. We had an R&B singer (of course, this was Detroit) who sang a Shake Russell tune, and a strolling band serenaded the guests. Afterwards, the party moved to Ann’s huge home, which sat on 12 acres. My brother said afterwards that it was the most spiritual and most fun wedding he’d ever been to.
The point being, I wish such a wedding for all who desire it. Sure, there were difficult times ahead of us then—there is in every marriage—but we were well begun, surrounded by our friends and family as we made promises before God. And there have been times that we would not have made it as a couple had we not stood in front of all those people and made promises. We still may not—there are never any guarantees—but a good beginning is crucial. How can I not wish that for all who want to marry?
Those of you who are LGBTQ and have stayed in the Christian church as straight Christians have fumbled and fumed, and tried to figure out whether God messed up while creating you, I want you to know that I am personally humbled and inspired by you. In standing with Jesus, in staying faithful to this flawed institution even as the larger Christian church may have persecuted you, you have demonstrated a love and perseverance that I can only call Christ-like. You, my friends, have modeled the sacrificial love of our Lord to me.
We at College Park are a better church, a more beautiful church, a more gracious church because you are among us. Now that the day has come that College Park will allow its clergy to exercise pastoral discretion in marrying all who want to order their relationships according to Christ’s love, be assured that I (and the rest of the staff) welcome you into my messy office for that conversation and into this sanctuary for that ceremony.
For those of you who might struggle with that choice, don’t worry; you are welcome in my office, too.  Come by, we’ll get you cup ‘a joe and me a Pepsi Max, and we’ll talk. Maybe we’ll invite a few of the same-sex couples in the congregation to join us. Nobody will bite each other, I promise. We’ll share the gospel and ourselves, as our Good Book instructs; and we will trust that the love of Christ is big enough to hold onto us and eventually to welcome us all home.
 Some of the ending was adapted from the Reverend Scott Black Johnston of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church sermon on January 26, 2014 entitled: “Is Same-Sex Marriage Christian Marriage?