So a lot’s happened in a year, hasn’t it? Just a year ago, we were waiting about this time as a nation to learn whether the Supreme Court would affirm in Obergefell v. Hodges a constitutional right to marriage for all persons, regardless of gender, or not. And at the same time, as a church we were waiting to see whether the General Convention would move forward in authorizing same-sex marriage when it met in July in Salt Lake City, or whether it would not.
Remarkably, both decisions were given in the same week, as the Court’s verdict in favor of marriage equality was providentially handed down just as the Convention was taking up the issue—and walls that had only recently seemed almost totally impenetrable suddenly came down, not unlike the fall of the Berlin wall years ago. (And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the leading role that the former rector of this parish, Fr. Brian Taylor, played in bringing this about.)
Since then, of course, there have been other controversies that have continued to emerge: there was the meeting of the primates (or chief bishops) of the Anglican Communion, who moved to impose sanctions on The Episcopal Church for its action. And on the national seen in this country, a debate around the question of bathroom accessibility for transgendered people has suddenly flared. Those are continuing sources of concern and distress.
But what I want to focus on here this evening for just a moment, is the remarkable sea-change that happened last summer in our church’s approach to marriage, when it opened the matrimonial doors to all.
Now, it has been said by some that when the church took this action, that such a move represented a radical change in the theology of marriage. And I suppose that might be true, if one focuses only on the gendered nature of our previous understanding of marriage.
But it seems to me, at least, that a fuller account of what happened is that rather than changing our understanding of marriage, what actually happened is that our understanding of marriage has come fully into focus for the first time.
You may know, that given how much trouble the issue has caused, some have suggested that the church should get out of the marriage business all together. Their point is that in the end, marriage is primarily a legal matter between two persons, governed by the laws of the state and therefore most appropriately celebrated in that context rather than the church. The problem is exacerbated, for instance, by the fact that in a church wedding, the minister acts as an officer of the state, which seems to blur that separation of church and state which is such an article of faith of the American political system.
But personally, I would want to resist that attitude, because it seems to me that something really important is actually at stake in the church’s concern for marriage—and that is, that in the willingness of two people to commit themselves wholly and sacrificially to one another as married persons, we are given an image, or an icon if you will, of the kind of reconciled relationship that the church envisions for all of humanity. That’s why, in the prologue to the wedding service, marriage is described as signifying to us “the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church”: marriage is a picture of the level of communion and fellowship that Jesus desires for us to have with him, and by extension with one another. So it’s no wonder that the church has historically cared deeply about marriage: it is one of the most tangible and powerful embodiments we have of the fruits of Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation. This deep relationality between married persons is what human life is meant to look like.
And tonight’s two scripture readings serve to confirm this affirmation, not only because they are among the suggested readings for the marriage rite itself in the Prayer Book, but also for what they hold up as a vision for how we are to live as Christian people. The first of the two readings, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, sketches out a pretty comprehensive view of how human relationships are meant to function. We are, Paul says, meant to be compassionate, forgiving, and forbearing one another. We are to be peaceful in our hearts, and to live thankfully and generously. And above all, we are to put love at the center of everything, for it is the power of love alone that binds us together.
Then in Matthew, we hear Jesus himself speaking in the Sermon on the Mount, encouraging us to be a light to the world—to make our own personal commitment to his ways of peacemaking, and compassion, and mercy, be so compelling, that others may see Jesus through us.
These two passages, when read at a wedding, make a pretty strong statement: they hold up the idea that the married couple is likewise to live in a relationship so grounded in concern for one another, that those around them may see what it is like (as Paul says) to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.
So in the past, we came to associate this iconic relationship within the body of the church exclusively with a couple that included one man and one woman. Those were the blinkers that limited our range of vision. But the question that has been raised for us more recently has been, whether the relationship of reconciliation that is so powerfully embodied in a marriage is actually dependent upon that one configuration. And what we have gradually concluded is that in fact, no, it is not.
And how did we come to that discovery? Well, simply by learning to look with eyes more carefully attuned to see what was around us. There, in plain sight, we (and I mean the whole body of the church) began to notice that there were other kinds of couples in our midst who were living similarly compassionate, peaceful, committed lives—gay, lesbian, bi, trans. Many of you are examples of exactly what I mean. And as we began to notice, we also began to learn that we could see in their, your, our commitment to one another the same iconic relationship that we had previously noticed only elsewhere.
We learned in other words to pay attention to what had always been right in front of us, but which because of our preconceptions we had not been able to see.
So rather than a radical change in our theology of marriage, perhaps what has actually happened is that our concept of marriage has deepened and thereby expanded into new terrain. The love and forgiveness and commitment that we thought we could see only in one form, we are now able to see in multiple forms: where we once were blind, now we see.
In the service for the witnessing and blessing of a same-sex marriage, the couple uses these words to offer themselves to one another:
In the name of God, I give myself to you. I will support and care for you by the grace of God; enduring all things, bearing all things. I will hold and cherish you in the love of Christ: in times of plenty, in times of want. I will honor and love you with the Spirit’s help: forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live. This is my solemn vow.
How could we not think, that when any two people are willing to make that kind of commitment to one another, that they are not fully representative to us of the kind of reconciled humanity that God longs for among us all. How could such a moment be anything, but a cause for celebration and pride. Amen.