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Based on the Scripture readings:
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

2012 May 13
Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Singing New Songs

New songs can be tricky things to sing, especially if you are singing them to the old Lord.

New songs are sometimes suspect until they become the old songs, and we become unwilling to change them for anything new.

But the Psalmist invites us to sing something new today, in the spirit of Isaiah where God says, "Behold, I am doing a new thing," and the way of Jesus where He requests new wineskins for new wine and a new commandment for love.

Our faith often celebrates that naught changeth God (as the hymn says) and simultaneously calls us to move out of Egypt, beyond Babylon, and away from cultural captivity into God's new worlds.

So sometimes it's hard to discern which is most important: the unchanging bits of God or the call to uncharted new life.

Yet it's likely that not only are both important but both are necessary and harmonious as we gather ancient wisdom to examine current calls, which is what I'm about to try today.

Although ours isn't really a new issue: it's an old one but an ongoing one, in the news again. It's the issue of same sex marriage, in state and Church. And by the grace of God, I'm for it. For some conservative reasons.

Back to topEight years ago I started a sermon on marriage with a quote from Shakespeare. It's a good re-starting place today, in Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Love alters not with ... brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of Doom...

Sometimes it feels like same sex marriage brings folks to the edge of doom. That is sad. Because it could lead us to the depth of Jesus' words about love, not only in Shakespeare's sense, but in the Christian sense of being for one another, serving one another, honoring one another, and this is what is at the heart of Jesus' call, the heart of any good discussion of marriage, and the heart of my faith in being for same sex marriage: the question of God's love.

Let me say a word about history, a word about theology, and a word about praise.

First off, same sex relationships have been with us for 3,000 years and more, and for at least 1000 they've been sanctioned and sanctified in the Church. Some say that Jesus protected them, and of course David and Jonathan, maybe Ruth and Naomi, and many others represent them. And while I smile at the line "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," any sincere student of Bible, beyond Bibliolatry, knows that our story is a bit more nuanced and embracing than a bumper sticker can reveal.

Our story from the Bible includes men who love women, women who love men, women who love women, and men who love men as well as a God who is most often male but sometimes female and a Savior who all ChristiansBack to top agree changed the way that family was formed, gender was regarded, status was seen, value was gauged, and courage was embodied.

But our Bible doesn't give us a single model for marriage. It gives us seven. If you think your way through some of the famous characters and stories, you realize that you know most of them. They are the matriarchal marriage, where a man is taken into the clan and family of the woman's household and joins her culture, like Moses, Jacob, and Samson. The patriarchal marriage, where authority and descent is reckoned from the father's line, as from Adam and Eve to Paul saying that a man is the head of a household. Next there is polygamous marriage, and besides David, Solomon, Jacob, and Abraham, there were many others. The fourth model is monogamy, with strong support in Hebrew law. The fifth model is exogamy, which means marrying someone from beyond your circle, and the sixth is endogamy which means, in the words of West Side Story, "stick to your own kind, one of your own kind." Finally there is Levirate marriage, where a widow is remarried to her lost husband's brother. There are some around here, in a tradition valued by Armenian Christians.

With seven primary models, the Bible doesn't lend itself to simple slogans. And much of what it presents is not followed in our modern lives and laws. Indeed, Jesus Himself interprets and updates many things, saying "you have heard it said..., but I say to you..." In our Christian lives, most of us update and interpret Biblical values too, prayerfully and together. As folks have forever.

John Boswell, a Yale historian, says that from the Judeo Christian tradition and into the Greek, Roman, and modern world, marriage has reflected two progressions. Once it began with property (women were property), led to children, and often, after years of life together, to love. In the modern world, he says, marriage often begins with love, considers children, and ends up in conversations and disputes about property.

Boswell documents that before the full emergence of the heterosexual marriage ceremony in the Church in the twelfth century, there were same sex union liturgies across the Christian world in the tenth century. Many of us have heard this before. Some of us may be hearing it for the first time. It puts today's discussion in a unique light.

Here's the unique light that I try to keep shining. It is the light of the scripture and its spirit. You know that Psalm 98 is about singing and installing a King or celebrating a victory, by God's grace. But notice this, too, right out of its verses: Prof. Carolyn Sharp points out that the first thing happening in this Psalm is that praise forms the community. People are gathered in praising God. Then this Psalm specifically praises God for covenantal faithfulness and justice. The keywords to google here are equity, righteousness, steadfast love, and faithfulness. Even in English they inspire, and in Hebrew they build the case that the new song, the joyful song, is the song of liberation, kindness, and mercy. Someone has said that mercy is love's second name, so today's Psalm joins today's Gospel praising the ancient God who doesn't call us repeatedly to do the same old thing in the same Back to topold Sisyphusian way, but to grow in service, friendship, justice, and love.

The Gospel of John expounds all this even further. It is a near sonnet of being beloved, befriended, and begotten by God. It's about being chosen by God, just as we are, without one plea. It's about a new model for relationship where common and well-practiced patterns, like a man owning a woman, are changed. Hierarchies are disbanded. Even the relationship to God evolves. No longer do I call you slaves, says Jesus, I call you friends. Now, love one another.

But, what about those bits in the Bible that speak against homosexuality? It's a good question. And a good ongoing conversation. And, since the word homosexual wasn't invented until the nineteenth century, the Bible never condemns it. It does condemn many things, such as inhospitality in Sodom, ritual uncleanliness in Leviticus, and infidelity or faithlessness in Romans. It also condemns football, synthetic clothing, and gossip as well as the failure to give, which is the trifecta for wearing an NFL Jersey watching TV on a Sunday, talking about football players lives, if you haven't gone to worship and given generously. The Bible absolutely condemns that. But I've never seen it on a bumper sticker. Because everyone knows that we're called to something More. We are called to something More.

This July it will be fifteen years since this particular parish became Open and Affirming -- the commitment to include all in the house of worship without regard to sexual identity, marital status, self-understanding, and more. I arrived here five years later. And roughly two years after that, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said that same sex marriage could not be denied.

Some of you know that we had a meeting here soon thereafter -- an Annual Meeting in January, following the November Court ruling. And being an Open and Affirming church, the question arose whether we would perform legal same sex wedding ceremonies, beyond the blessings we had done before. And I had a brilliant idea. We were busy that December, with Christmas and all, and we'd had no time for adult education or deep discussion, and to be fair just because the Court had said this was legal didn't mean that it was yet right for us. So I suggested that we put this issue on our agenda, have a motion to adopt a new policy, and also have someone move to table the discussion until later so that we could spend time in conversation and prayer and make sure we had a spiritual consensus. Carol Jensen was our Moderator, and Marianne Talis made the motions, by prior arrangement.Back to top To give us time. It was simple, elegant, respectful, and foolproof.

Except for this. I had neglected to hear the Holy Spirit. I had neglected to hear any but cautious voices. I had forgotten that our invitation is to sing a new song to the Lord. And many of you know what happened. The motion to table was described as fearful, slow, unjust, and faithless. It was voted down. And the motion to endorse and practice our faith in this brave new world passed with passion.

Earlier this week, someone made news by saying that they had seen the world change a bit regarding same sex marriage, and they'd consulted spouse and children and friends and changed. Yet in the church, we have an unchanging call to justice that leads us. We consult the Holy Spirit, the scriptural spirit, and our history to perceive our call. We study the faith to see what's next. And we must never claim that we know the whole, eternal, absolute truth here, nor should we ever doubt that when we follow the call of the Psalm, the Savior, and the Spirit we are going the righteous way.

Indeed, my devotion is to be conservative about God's ways. And God's ways, Jesus' ways, keep pushing us forward. They keep introducing us to new peoples, new members of the covenant and the Body of Christ who, it turns out, have been part of God's creation all along and around since the beginning, there being so very little that is new under the sun except to us who forgot to look and to see all that God creates. But to look and to see, to serve, to include, is to be conservative. To form a community in humble praise is to hear the Psalm and the Savior. To see culture's love and Christian covenant together is God's call.

If you support same sex marriage and someone asks you why, say it's because of your faith. It's because of 2,000 years of extending God's inclusiveness. It's because of 1,000 years of practicing our prayer. It's because the two names you know for God are Mercy and Love. It's because this is the way to thank God and offer God praise for a good creation and a gracious tomorrow. It's because even tomorrow, we'll all be called to another new song.

Listen to this: this is what everyone is worried about. Back to topThis is nearly the earliest known prayer for a same gender marriage in churches from Israel to Paris to Rome:

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 glory. (Amen)

That doesn't seem so scary. It seems filled with faith. Faith in a loving God. Like ours. Amen.

(This sermon was preached in morning worship in Newton Highlands, and is not for reprinting or publication. It is to be shared and pondered as the Spirit invites. You may know this but Bibliolatry is a word from Harry Emerson Fosdick, John Boswell wrote several books but the one cited here, and the source for the final prayer, is Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. Carolyn Sharp teaches Hebrew Scripture at Yale, and the Biblical citations are easy to find these days on a website. The Hymn on naught changing is "Immortal, Invisible..." All of the faith claims are my own, but shared widely, to be sure.)

Back to top Copyright © 2012 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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