Opening reading: Fire Logs, by Carl Sandburg
Nancy Hanks dreams by the fire;
Dreams, and the logs sputter,
And the yellow tongues climb.
Red lines lick their way in flickers.
Oh, sputter, logs.
Oh, dream, Nancy.
Time now for a beautiful child.
Time now for a tall man to come.
Preface: welcoming comments to seventh grade class, “Our Neighboring Faiths:”
I want to welcome you here this morning. You are learning about other religions by going to other churches, synagogues, mosques, shrines, a native American sweat lodge, and so forth. We want you to learn about the variety of approaches to religion, and by learning, to ‘respect’ them.
There’s a saying from the great Chinese sage, Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I experience and I understand.”
It’s important that you experience these other religions, not only to understand them, but to develop a deeper understanding of yourself. You will find the similarities and differences in the places you visit and the people you meet. Hopefully you will discover what is at the core of all religion, at its best. Hopefully you will find and develop something sacred within yourself.
One of our basic beliefs is what we call ‘the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.’ That doesn’t mean that all people are dignified. It means that there is something innate, or inborn. There is something within each of us when we come into this world. It needs to be nourished, however, just as our body needs nourishment.
This ‘thing’ in us, which is the source of our ability to love and be loved, can be lost or damaged.
You heard the song from South Pacific, “You’ve Got to Be Taught.” If you are taught to hate and fear, the sacred ‘thing’ within you, which some call God, can be lost.
So we’re here in this sanctuary to nurture the source of our ‘inherent worth and dignity.’ Yours and mine, and by extension, all persons’ It is precious. It is sacred. It is at the core of all the religions of the world. It is the essence of the best in religions.
Today we’re calling attention to gay and lesbian people in our culture. I’ve heard young people use the expression, “That’s so gay.” When I’ve spoken to people who have used it they say, “It only means something dumb or stupid or unusual. I don’t mean anything bad by it.”
To grow up, to become a mature, responsible, respectful person, you have to take responsibility for the way things are heard, no matter how you intend them. You have to be willing to speak up to someone who uses derogatory language about gays, or anyone else. You have to be willing to tell someone that a put-down, a disrespectful comment, is inappropriate. It’s not easy, I know.
Finally, you are here in this service today, in a way that is similar to the services you’ve attended at the Catholic church and synagogue and Buddhist temple already. I’m glad you are here today.
Sermon: The Unbroken Circle
“He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”
Edwin Markham 1852 – 1940
Edwin Markham was a bit of a heretic. The word heretic comes from the Greek verb hairetikos-‘to choose.’ He was a rebel, since he was willing to defy authority. So, like all heretics and rebels he became a thing to flout.to criticize, to ostracize.
More about Markham later. Let’s talk about the circle that leaves people out because of their sexual orientation. Let’s talk about same-gender marriage.
I have been officiating at union ceremonies–ceremonies of commitment for gay and lesbian couples–for nearly twenty-five years. Let me tell you about just one of those weddings-without-a-license.
It happened in the old downstairs chapel on February 23, 1985–the first such ceremony at which I officiated after being called to this pulpit. It’s a cherished memory of my ministry.
(This and the other gay/lesbian unions I have officiated at are listed in our Membership Book, along with the signatures of members, and a recording of weddings, funeral and memorial services, child dedications and ordinations.)
The two women, Jessica and Elise, were in their mid-60’s. Jessica was blind as a result of her diabetes, which was increasingly disabling-she had been blind for about a year.
Jessica and Elise wanted a church wedding-they wanted their commitment to be blessed. They were not members of this congregation. They came to me after they read an article in the paper about our 1984 General Assembly resolution in support of same-sex marriage, and in support of Unitarian Universalist clergy who officiate at such ceremonies of commitment. (Some of our colleagues were getting in trouble with their congregations for doing such ceremonies.)
Jessica and Elise and I met, as I always meet with couples to plan a ceremony, and they told me their story–a memorable and moving love story. They had been in a committed relationship for over thirty years. They told me about their struggle–the illnesses through which they had nursed one another. They told me about their joy and the deep satisfaction their love had brought to their lives.
They told me about the other struggle they had to overcome-the secret of their love, their cautious privacy for most of their years together. They told me about their experience of coming out.coming out of that claustrophobic closet.
Their latest struggles centered around Jessica’s diabetes and the recent onset of her loss of sight. They said the prognosis was not good. There probably wasn’t much time left, they said. They said that for some time they wanted their union blessed. Jessica said, “When Elise read that article to me about Unitarians doing same-sex marriages I knew that our prayers were answered.”
To say that I was moved is putting it mildly. To say that I was honored and humbled is an understatement.
Our planning sessions had a sacred quality. They were characterized by a measure of maturity that is often missing in such sessions-they had been there.
At their ceremony I read a passage from a 19th century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, who said:
” It takes years to marry completely two hearts, even of the most loving and well-assorted. A happy wedlock is a long falling in love. Young persons think love belongs only to the brown-haired and crimson-cheeked. But the golden marriage is a part of love the wedding day knows nothing of.
A perfect and complete marriage, where wedlock is everything you could ask, and the ideals of marriage become actual, is not common, but rare. Very few are married are married totally, and they only after some thirty or forty years of gradual approach and experiment.
Such a large and sweet fruit is a complete marriage that it needs a long summer to ripen in, and then a long winter to mellow and season it. But a real marriage of love, commitment and judgment is one of the things so very handsome that if the sun were, as the Greek poets fabled, a god, he might stop the world and hold it still now and then in order to look all day long on some example thereof, and feast his eyes on such a spectacle.”
Their ceremony was an affirmation of vows they had been living for years. They wanted the blessing but they didn’t realize the extent to which they had blessed those of us who shared it, those of us who were able to ‘feast our eyes on such a spectacle.’
I remember that candle light ceremony so clearly-it stands out and sits in a special place among the most precious moments I’ve known in ministry. I wish you had been there. Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar, so that the discussion of same-gender marriage has a personal meaning, so you don’t have to try to imagine it, so you don’t have to be confused about it because it doesn’t fit the plastic figures of a bride and groom on top of the wedding cake.
In their hearts, and in mine, they were married, just as much as any license could grant or deny.
That’s one sermon illustration out of the experiences that have helped me to understand.
It demeans Jessica and Elise and all gay and lesbian couples to tell them to be content with a civil union. It is a denial of the quality of their love.
I was glad that they felt the blessing one gets from a religious ceremony-the blessing they got from having that small circle of family and friends who were there to offer their blessing.
It had a religious quality in their eyes, but I’m sorry it did not have legal standing. I’m glad that I could serve them. I’m glad that I could help them feel the blessing they wanted, and so deeply deserved.
I gave them what I could, including a certificate of marriage, which had their names, the date and place of their ceremony-a certificate I was honored to sign.
They worked with a lawyer to arrange for legal things like inheritance-things that are automatically granted to those to whom marriage licenses are issued. They had to draw up a legal document to allow hospital visitation, which is sometimes restricted to family members only. Hospital visitation is something heterosexual couples take for granted, like so many of the privileges that we take for granted.
Marriage should not be a reward for being heterosexual. The denial of a marriage license should not be a punishment for being gay or lesbian.
This isn’t just theoretical or philosophical. There are lots of very important, practical benefits that accrue to heterosexual couples when they marry-rights and benefits that are systematically denied to same-gender couples.
Jessica and Elise were family! Why have we allowed the religiously and culturally small-minded to define family for us? We need to take back that word: family. Love makes a family. Commitment makes a family. A family is intentionally created, over and over and over, and it takes work. It requires the honing of basic interpersonal skills.
A blood relationship does not, in and by itself, make a family. Many families-by-blood are devoid of the necessary ingredients; many are dysfunctional, and, truth be told, many combinations of persons that the state calls a family are downright destructive.
It’s ironic that the religious conservatives in our culture have tried to hold the word family captive, using it for political purposes. It’s ironic because every family in the Bible they’re so fond of quoting is dysfunctional-many of them horribly dysfunctional.
In the first family Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain kills his brother Abel. Jacob’s and Esau are twins, Esau was born first and was therefore Isaac’s heir, but Jacob deceived his father and stole Esau’s birthright. Jacob proceeds to have twelve sons by four different women. His son Joseph was cursed with favoritism, given a coat of many colors that set him apart. His brothers beat him and sold him into slavery. Ah, the families of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike.
You’ve heard the passage from the Gospel of Matthew about Jesus making the comment about his mother and brothers:
“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!'”
The accident of birth does not guarantee a sense of family. A family is created, intentionally. A family doesn’t happen just because two people have exchanged vows, have a license and produce children. Love makes a family.
Jessica and Elise’s relationship was characterized by mutual respect and devoted love. They created a family that radiated warmth to those of us who stood with them on that cold February night in 1985.
They had been together since the ’50’s when the ten percent of the population who are gay or lesbian had to hide in closets for fear of being found out, condemned, thrown out of the circle, or worse. During my own lifetime the Nazi’s killed hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian men and women.
Like Jessica and Elise, Suzanne and Rozanne have been partners in a committed, caring, mutually supportive relationship for seven years, so far. They are here this morning as members of this congregation. They have been helping us to be the welcoming congregation we want and need to be-a place that is open and affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals and couples.
Suzanne and Rozanne want to be married. They don’t want a second-class service of union, invented for same-gender couples as a substitute for the real thing. They won’t be satisfied with margarine–they want the butter.
Imagine the nerve of these two-Suzanne and Rozanne-the chutzpah! They’re demanding that they have the same rights and privileges that Lory and I were able to secure one morning by walking into the Westport Town Hall to get a marriage license.
Who do they think they are, anyway? Where do they think they are living? I mean, do they really believe that they are as good Barbara and Jonathan, as good as Lory and me? Do they really expect us to believe that they are as capable of creating a loving and lasting relationship like the straight couples who live in this country?
You bet they believe it; so do I. If you’ve come to know them, I think you believe it too.
There are still some people in this country who actually believe in the Bill of Rights, who see certain freedoms as sacred, just as others look at the Bible as sacred, or the Koran. We don’t want to take away the Bible or the Koran, we just don’t want them to quote Scripture to deny Suzanne and Rozanne’s civil rights!
The word marriage has a very powerful social connotation. Many people say that gay and lesbian couples should have all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of heterosexual couples, but don’t call it marriage. Call it a civil union. Call it a contract. But don’t call it marriage, because marriage is sacred.
It’s called cognitive dissonance. That’s precisely why it needs to be called marriage. There’s growing agreement about this. There’s a built-in resistance, of course. That’s a given. There’s always resistance to change. There are always people who will say, “Not now. Our society isn’t ready. I’m ready, but they’re not.”
Following the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision to grant marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples there was a flood of commentary in the press. Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote a piece for the New York Times in which he said, in part, “Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution.”
“You would think that faced with (the) marriage crisis (in our culture), we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity.”
He goes on, “The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.”
He says, “When liberals argue for gay marriage, they make it sound like a really good employee benefits plan. Or they frame it as a civil rights issue, like extending the right to vote.”
These comments are very revealing. We welcome his support of same-gender marriage, but we do not welcome his condescending insistence. His authoritarianism is showing, and this, more than any particular political position or religious belief, is what distinguishes us, I think.
Consenting adults have the right to live together without the benefit of clergy, as they say. Gay and lesbian couples have that right now. Neither should be required to marry. Let’s face it, some gay and lesbian marriages will end in bitter divorces. There will be battles over money, property and child custody, just like heterosexual marriage.
We haven’t heard any serious suggestion to end the institution of marriage because so many marriages end in divorce, or worse-so many marriages, having lost their reason for being, languish, loveless, delivering unintended messages to children that ‘this is the way it is.’
The institution of marriage will continue, and, eventually, gay and lesbian couples will be included in the circle. In Connecticut there are 588 statutes that revolve around the circumference of marriage-laws about marriage, divorce and child support; laws that regulate property, government benefits, veterans benefits, wills, trusts and estates; laws about taxation as well as labor laws in which marital status is a factor.
Gay and lesbian couples who choose to do so should not be kept out of that circle. Even a simple thing like visitation rights when one of the partners is hospitalized can become extremely important.
Take the story of Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson, partners in a committed relationship who bought a home together in Minnesota. They exchanged vows and rings in a sacred ceremony that symbolized their commitment. But they couldn’t get married in Minnesota.
Then, suddenly on a dark and stormy night in November, 1983, a drunk driver smashed into Sharon’s car. Karen rushed to the hospital but she was denied access to Sharon. She couldn’t even get any information about Sharon’s condition because she wasn’t considered family–she was just “a friend.” So Karen waited alone, with her pain and her prayers, not knowing if Sharon was alive or dead, barred from being at her bedside.
Finally, a priest who had visited Sharon told Karen that her partner had suffered a serious brain injury. She couldn’t walk. She could barely speak. She would need constant care. But she was alive. And that was just the beginning of the long nightmare of indignity and injustice.
Sadly, Sharon’s parents didn’t know that their daughter was lesbian-she could never bring herself to tell them. They didn’t know about the depth of their daughter’s relationship with Karen, so Karen finally had to tell them that they were more than friends, more than roommates, they were lovers in a committed relationship. She showed them the matching rings and photographs taken at their ceremony.
Not surprisingly, Sharon’s parents were incredulous. They said it was impossible. They said it was insane, that it was disgusting.
Sharon’s parents moved her to a nursing home three hundred miles away, and they prevented Karen from visiting. Karen spent nine years and $300,000 in legal costs to win the right to visit, to care for, and finally to bring home the woman she promised ‘to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy.’
The right of a married person to visit and care for one’s spouse is so basic for those of us in heterosexual marriages that it takes the true-life story of Sharon and Karen to begin to understand the injustice that goes on in every state in this country today.
No one in our culture should be forced to marry. I once had a mother take her sixteen-year old daughter to my office and said, “She needs to get married.” I looked at the frightened young woman and said, “Are you pregnant?” She lowered her head and said, “Yes.” I said to the mother, “I’d like to have a few minutes alone with your daughter.” She responded, defensively, “Why?” I said, “Because I have to find out if she wants to get married-I’m legally obliged to do that, and as long as you are in the room I can’t be sure.” She marched her daughter out, and I never saw or heard from them again.” No one in our society can be forced to marry-it’s the law.
Indeed, those of us who officiate at weddings are simply testifying to the fact that these two people have indicated, in whatever way they chose to do so, that they wanted to be married to one another.
Those who want to be married must assume the relational responsibilities and legal obligations that go with it. That’s what Rozanne and Suzanne, and thousands of gay and lesbian couples like them, want to do.
A few years ago Suzanne did the one-woman show, ‘She’s a Rebel.’ Remember? She sang all those old love songs that had been made famous by male crooners. She showed us that those love songs had just as much meaning-or more-when sung by a woman to her lover.
They are a couple of rebels, these two-and proud of it, just like Edwin Markham’s little poem says:
” He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”
Edwin Markham 1852 – 1940
Edwin Markham was just born before the civil war. He grew up during the time when Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and other clergy were preaching abolitionist sermons. When Markham turned twelve he began his working life, beginning with hard labor. He later became an effective crusader against child labor, helping to establish the first child-labor laws in America.
Markham had the idea that we humans who inhabit this fragile little planet have a responsibility to change what needs to be change, to fix what needs to be fixed, to eliminate slavery and forced child labor, to provide freedom and justice for all.
That, for him, was a religious quest. Look at the date on the other end of his life: there’s a symbolic significance to that date for me that I hadn’t noticed before: he died the year I was born. We’re expected to pick up where others have left off. Each of us has work in the world.
The work for justice goes on. As JFK said, “God’s work must be our own.”
We are the eyes and ears of God, looking and listening for signs of injustice; we are the hands of God, finding ways to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves,’ ready to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the prisoners and the sick, and welcome the stranger, and to bring justice to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who are being systematically and intentionally kept out of the circle of justice.
The circle of justice is broken. We must work to create a new circle of justice, an unbroken circle.