Isn't Marriage Gay?
Last week I began my meditation with a sonnet from Shakespeare. This
week I offer a prayer, written around 400 AD, that is 1600 years ago.
It is a marvelous prayer for love.
O Lord our God, who didst grant unto us all those
things necessary for salvation and who didst bid us to love one
another and forgive each other our failings, bless and consecrate,
kind Lord and lover of good, these thy servants who love each other
with a love of the spirit and have come into this thy holy church to
be blessed and consecrated. Grant unto them unashamed fidelity (and)
sincere love, and as Thou didst vouchsafe unto thy holy disciples and
apostles thy peace and love, bestow (them) also on these, O Christ our
God, affording them all those things needed for salvation and life
eternal. For thou art the light (and) the truth and thine is the
In this prayer is much of the unsettling content of our current
debate regarding marriage in the Commonwealth. For this is a prayer
from a same-sex wedding ceremony used regularly for seven hundred years
and still around today. These weddings are a fact from the past and
prospect for the future that unsettles and troubles many people. In
this prayer is also the resource for debate's resolution and faith's
restoration. For this is a prayer that proclaims dependence upon God
and lists God's central values: love, light, truth, peace, and
forgiveness. This is a prayer that gives us a way to live.
In order to continue our conversation about the history of marriage,
which was discussed last week, today I
want to see how our scriptures of transformation and transfiguration
speak to communities and a culture immersed in an examination of gay
marriage. I want to consider some history and encourage some ministry
regarding the moment and the call that embraces us. And
I want to reclaim a true prayer together.
This whole discussion of marriage does not come to us in an orderly
way, and I can't organize it easily myself. In fact, historian John
Boswell says we find great disorder throughout this examination.
Indeed, he argues strenuously that for many hundreds of years, gay and
lesbian persons have been culture's despised exiles and that that
opinion did not originate in scripture. That is, cultural anti-gay
sentiments have arisen from a source other than our Bible, then they
get read into it: an odd order. Otherwise, he says, we would be
consumed with greed, hypocrisy, or even skin diseases, all of which are
Biblically more condemned than is homosexuality. Yet he turns early to
the scriptures as a resource for people of faith. For when we know our
history it is not misused with our unwitting consent.
Let me take a moment to address that task. Let me speak of the
Bible, of Jesus' words, of the Church's record, and then of our own
visions and proclamations. In all this I can't be comprehensive, but
I'll do what I can.
There are three primary texts in our Bible cited as proof that
homosexuality is condemned. They are, the story of Sodom, the
prohibitions of Leviticus, and the citation at the beginning of Paul's
letter to the Romans. Let's take them in order. Five sources within the
Bible, including the words of Jesus in Matthew, say that the issue in
Sodom was inhospitality, pride, and idleness. You can read the
citations yourselves and see that they are not confusing. It was much
later in history that Sodom became a synonym for some evil. But
fundamentally its story is not about homosexuality.
Second, Leviticus calls certain acts toevah, or an
abomination. They were therefore ritually, not morally,
unclean. The modern faithful who cite them should also condemn eating
pork, shellfish, rabbit, and the hybridization of animals among other
things. And we don't do that. Because at the Council of Jerusalem,
reported in the Bible, all these prohibitions were put aside for
Christians. New Testament believers simply don't hold to the Levitical
Then there is Paul. What Paul offers in Romans is a general
condemnation of infidelity -- faithlessness -- with lists and examples.
He has a theological concern and says, in fact, heterosexual men
shouldn't give up their identity in homosexual practice, just as we
shouldn't give up the One God for alternate gods. He could, but does
not, condemn gays or lesbians. Instead he drops the topic
after one phrase in a sixteen-chapter book.
Walter Wink says that in the same way that you can construct a
defense of slavery from the Bible, you can create a condemnation of
gays. But it is a tenuous creation and overlooks the guiding principles
of the new covenant such as love of God, neighbor, self, and enemy.
Personally, professionally, it is a weak construct and as many scholars
have pointed out, at its very best it addresses gays but it never
addresses lesbians. Does this silence indicate approval? Or is this the
silliness of tenuous arguments stripped of their roots and purposes?
Personally I return to the love ethic, as does Wink, who says if we go
to the Bible for insight here the real question posed is, "How can
I love my homosexual neighbor?"
So what does Jesus say? Well, one school of thought says
"nothing." He never uses a word clearly about gays or
lesbians. Yet some scholars wonder about a curious reference made in
the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, call no one raca or you
will be sent to the court. Raca is usually translated
"fool," but that doesn't make much sense. Some prestigious
translators think it is an Aramaic slang term for gays. If they are
right, then Jesus did say something. He said you're in trouble if you
denigrate gays. Yet there is scholarly confusion over this ancient
So what does the Church say? Well, the answer here takes volumes. As
we now know, before there was a heterosexual liturgy for church
weddings, there was a same sex liturgy. Why didn't we all learn this in
Church School? I don't know. I think it falls in the same category of
what I didn't learn about American Church history, the influence of
Babylonian culture on Hebrew culture, or the relationship between David
and Jonathan. It just didn't get studied and didn't get taught. But it
was in use from Mt. Sinai's monastery to the Vatican to Greece, Paris,
and Ireland: across the Christian world. And it was grounded in the
Greek and Roman opinion that masculinity, bravery, and honor were
strengthened by male love, especially in the army and military
pursuits, as much reported by Plutarch, Aristotle, Virgil, and many
others. A same sex union celebrated strength for country and community,
once upon a time, even in Church.
But the official opinion of the Church changed over the centuries.
As heterosexual marriage was taken into the sanctuary in the twelfth
century, child bearing and monogamy came to be enshrined as values.
Roman priests could no longer marry, property issues took on new
meaning, and a cultural condemnation took over where tolerance once had
Today, obviously, you can find one wing of Christendom that
articulates a strict prohibition on any same sex activity and another
that respects and embraces the diversity of identities that it believes
are the product of God's creation. I try to understand and respect the
strict prohibitions, but I cannot honorably represent them. You will
have to ask church friends from elsewhere better to explain them, even while knowing that the
membership of every church is divided in its social and theological
So where are we today? Our entire Church is informed and
inspired by the scriptures this morning. Luke calls us to another
mountaintop. Jesus goes there to pray, along with Peter, James, and
John. And just when they think they will get some rest, they encounter
two dead men: Moses and Elijah. The two ancestors speak of Jesus'
Exodus, which is his guidance of those in bondage to a land of freedom,
like the Hebrews leaving Egypt. But Peter and James and John fall
asleep and miss this point. So God speaks loudly, saying "This is
my son, listen to him!" Which is certainly clear enough even for
Today Paul is having a conversation with folks who don't necessarily
like everything that he says. Still, he says this: hope about the
future makes us bold. As we speak, we are changing into the likeness of
Christ. And, while laws kill us, the Spirit gives us life. That word
"change" that he uses is really transformation, so Paul is
calling for a transformation to a Christ-like nature that we can boldly
How does all that translate into our moment here, now, today? How
does all this guide us who live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at
this juncture of history? Well, again, those are not simple questions.
But let me say how it guides me.
The summer I graduated from divinity school, a twenty-three year old
man named Charlie Howard was killed by three teenagers in Bangor, Maine
for being gay. He and a friend were leaving a young adult group at a
church when the teens stopped them on a bridge, beat up Charlie, and
then threw him in the water below. They drove off laughing. My roommate
in divinity school was gay, friends from college and childhood were
gay, as were new professional colleagues. And that summer twenty years
ago we were all reminded that violence against particular identities is
not restricted to blacks or women or foreigners, but sometimes it was
the response to your sexual identity, even in the quiet small towns of
That summer and in the years since I realized just how much I didn't
know about the experience of gay and lesbian persons, and I began to
study. As you know, I worked as a political
advocate for these causes in Maine, and I experienced some threats
With my own grounding in the scriptures and my love for God and
God's Church, I've never been able to understand, as Boswell says, why
there is so much concern about another person's sexual identity. Why is
there so much condemnation? As a single man for thirty-eight years, no
one else's marriage, parenthood, single-hood, or personal behavior
endangered or radically changed me in any way. As a married person
these last nine years, I feel similarly un-threatened by mature and
loving relationships of any type that take place all around me. As
Walter Wink says, the central Christian ethic is that all our
relationships express the integrity of our relationship with God. That
is our guidance; little more and no less.
Now, as a pastor in Massachusetts I am touched by the wonder and the
opportunity of our moment, even as I am aware that there are struggles
and even injuries ahead. I am touched because the progress of our
nation and the progress of Christ's Church have always been associated
with the embrace and inclusion of additional groups that have always
been around. Blacks, Native Americans, women, the Irish, and even in
the midst of anguish these past years American Muslims, for example.
Jesus left a model and a challenge of embracing those whom his culture
ignored. Children, women, foreigners like Samaritans, and then finally
us: Gentiles. I cannot believe that the progress of our nation or the
progress of our faith is complete. I do not believe that God is done
with us and saying, "Stop." I do not know where yet we may be
called, and I do not know that I am ready for all those places, but I
can only claim the integrity of my faith if my ears are open and my
heart is fair. In this moment I believe we are called to support
progress in inclusiveness.
Two weeks ago you gave me an enormous gift as a pastor. You voted,
which is our highest order of expression and decision, to endorse the
Supreme Court opinion regarding gay and lesbian marriage. I cannot
express how little I expected that and how powerful it is to me in
conducting my ministry to say, yes, we have minority opinions here too
which deserve respect, but we are emboldened to minister to this moment
even as it takes us to unexpected places. Relying upon God, we can do
In the months ahead, if we are honest to this vote, we may be
ridiculed. We may experience attack. We may make mistakes. But we will
do so endeavoring to share something that is not ours anyway: the
message of God in Christ that love is our central ethic and that we
don't choose our acts of ministry because they are easy but because
they are our best prayerful understanding of God's command.
On the one hand the months ahead may go by with us wondering what
the fuss was all about as we continue to embrace, include, bless, and
yes consecrate God's children who come here to God's house. On the
other hand, we may look back at these days and note them on the list of
our most important historical events. The days when doors were opened,
mountaintops were visited, those in bondage traveled to a new location,
and those afraid were embraced to heal a broken heart.
The marriage prayer from the fourth century that I read before
includes a wonderful phrase amidst its poetry. It speaks of
"unashamed fidelity." That's what we all want, isn't it?
Heterosexuals who are not ashamed to be faithful to each other. Gays
and lesbians who can be public about their love and commitment.
Christians who can say, this is my God, this is God's Messiah, and
these are his words: "Love one another." Which is all part of
This isn't an orderly moment in history or theology. It is new
birth. It is transformation: transfiguration, so don't fall asleep. It
is the union of events that we could not have imagined. And we are in
the midst of it together. What a blessing. What a sacred time. What a
profound ministry. What God has joined together, let no one put
Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by