It's Complicated

July 20, 2014, Genesis 2:18-24, Matthew 19:3-8

First scenario

First Presbyterian Church!

Hello, may I speak to the pastor?

This is Pastor Tom.

Hi, um, you don’t know me, but my grandfather was on the trustees at your church a long time ago and my daughter is getting married next November, and I was wondering if we could have the wedding at your church.

Congratulations! I’m so happy for your daughter. What’s her name?


Great, have Ashley give me a call and we can get started. What her fiance’s name?


OK. I look forward to hearing from Ashley. This is such happy news!

Um, pastor, could you check to see if November 22 is available? We really need to book the reception.

I’ll be happy to talk to Ashley and Kyle about the ceremony. She can call here at the church office, same number you used, 235-6180.

Uh…she’s at work right now and can’t call you. Would you just check on November 22?

I see. Well, here’s my home number, 303-2926. She can call me there this evening and we can set up our first meeting.

Pastor, I’m really afraid that we’ll lose the hall, would you please just let me know if we can go ahead with November 22?

I’m sorry, but I haven’t met Ashley and Kyle yet. I haven’t decided whether to perform their wedding. I’m not comfortable scheduling anything until I met them face-to-face and they hear what this congregation and I require of couples who get married here.

Fine. Maybe Ashley will call you. We might just have to go to another church.

I look forward to hearing from Ashley. I’m really happy for you and your whole family

Second scenario

First Presbyterian Church!

Hi, uh, I’d like to talk to the pastor?

This is Pastor Tom. Who are you?

My name’s Cindy. Do you do weddings?

Sure, Cindy. Congratulations! What’s your connection to First Presbyterian Church?

Well, see my fiancé and I are looking for a church….Could we have dancing at our reception?

I guess, if you want it. The church really doesn’t have anything to do with the reception.

Good. See the pastor of our church says we can’t dance at our reception because it’s a sin. But my fiance’s family loves to dance and they wouldn’t come to the wedding if we didn’t have dancing.

Got it. So you’re looking for a church that doesn’t forbid dancing. We have a group of young people who dance in worship sometimes. Dancing is not a problem here.

Good. Oh, and there’s one other thing…I’m white and my fiancé isn’t and our pastor says that the Bible says that we shouldn’t get married because of that. Do you have a problem with people of different races getting married?

Your pastor said what?!

He says in the Bible it says people shouldn’t mix together, so he won’t do our wedding.

Oh my. I’m really sorry he told you that. I don’t believe that. The people at this church don’t believe that. Have you gone to that church for a long time?

Pretty long, since we moved to Oshkosh. My fiancé committed his life to Jesus there and got baptized and was really on fire for the Lord, but now this happened and he’s pretty sad.

I can understand that. I want to hear more about what happened to you when we meet to start planning your wedding, I hope it’s not too painful for you to talk about.

At this point I was crying. Partly because I was so angry, but also because I knew how much this couple had been hurt by someone who has the same job that I have. I hurt with them.

Scenario 3

A member of my Rotary club asked me about ten years ago, “Tom, would you do a gay wedding?” And I responded, “Congratulations! Who’s the lucky fella?” There was a long pause. “Not for me, I’ve been happily married for 45 years, I mean, what would you do if a gay couple asked you to do their wedding.” At that point I’d never been asked by a same-sex couple to perform a wedding. I thought about it and said, “I’d schedule a meeting with them, same as I would for a straight couple. I never agree to perform a wedding and never schedule one until I’ve met with the couple and decided that their relationship is strong and committed enough and that it’s rooted in—and a reflection of--Christ’s love.”

“Answer the question: would you do a gay wedding.”

“I might. I could. It depends on the couple.”

Things got a lot more complicated since I had those conversations. And they got complicated locally here in this congregation too. I wrote this on Thursday, June 12, the day after Winnebago County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Here’s where things stood at that moment.

Think of my next thoughts are a bulls-eye, I’m starting in the center, with me as a Presbyterian minister. Then I’ll discuss the next ring out—the Session, and then the next ring, our denomination, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Presbyterian ministers have complete freedom in only four areas of the church’s life: We select the scripture lessons for worship; we preach our consciences; we compose prayers used in worship and we decide whose weddings to perform.

The freedom to decide whose weddings to perform keeps pastors from presiding at weddings they do not believe are based in strong enough relationships. Even if the most powerful member of Session pressured the pastor to perform a shot gun wedding, the pastor has the authority to decline to do the wedding as a matter of conscience. I’ve been performing weddings for more than 23 years and I’ve never had anyone outside the couple try to persuade me to perform a wedding.

But I do not preside at a wedding every time I am asked. For some reason, shortly after I arrived at this church there was a spike in the number of couples asking to get married here. I arrived in 1999 and for a time in the year 2000 I was meeting with eight couples who were planning to get married. That’s a very high number. The only reason I can think it was so high was how easy it would be to calculate how long one had been married. I, for example, never forget my wedding anniversary, May 21, but I have for years struggled to remember the year, 1994. Then there’s the math involved. If it’s 2014, and we got married in 1994…how long have we been married? People who got married in 2000 have a very memorable year and an easy calculation. As it turned out, I only performed four of those eight weddings. Some of the couples stopped coming to pre-marital meetings and never told me why. Some of them I informed were not ready to be married, and I could not perform their ceremonies. All this happened in private.

Another thing happened shortly after I arrived at this church and started performing weddings. The Session pointed out to me that they did not know who the couples were. Now the couples told me things like, “I went to preschool here,” and “This is my family’s church home,” and “My dad was an elder for years.” Your ruling elders were not comfortable just being a wedding chapel, they wanted weddings to reflect and build on the faith and relationships of our members. That made good sense to me. So after a few months, the Session began to require that couples who were getting married here had a Prayer of Blessing prior to their wedding. The couple would attend worship, be called forward and prayed for during the worship service—and they were required to stay for coffee hour. This way the congregation sees the people whom we are supporting—and more importantly, the couples see that “church” is not only a building that they get to rent for special occasions. Last Sunday we had two prayers of blessing for couples who are getting married. Mariana Berbert and Matt Vieth were married yesterday in Madison and Olivia Farrow and Eliza Salisbury were married last month and there will be a special worship service to honor that marriage in October. Since we began requiring a Prayer of Blessing, one couple has decided not to get married here—it was too much to ask. I wished them well.

That’s the first ring in the target—the pastor has complete freedom to perform, or not perform weddings.

The next ring in the authority target is the Session. The Session in Presbyterian churches has most of the authority. They set the budget, they schedule worship, they oversee the staff, they provide for the Christian education program and they see that the property is maintained. Because of that last bit, they decide what happens in the building. When a community group wants to meet in Magnolia Hall, for example, that request goes to the Session’s Property & Finance Committee, they decide whether to permit the group to use that room, and inform the Session of their decision. Session also sets the rental rates for using the various rooms in the building. It is the Session who decides what happens in and on our property. Last November, I informed the Session that I had been approached by a same-sex couple, members of this congregation, to preside at a union ceremony, celebrating their committed relationship. In November same-sex marriages were not legal in Wisconsin, in fact, the most recent amendment to the state constitution forbade them.

But remember, Presbyterian ministers are free to perform any wedding they can in good conscience. But I don’t control what happens in the building. So I told this couple, “I will preside at your union ceremony, but it’s up to the Session whether that can happen in our building. We’ve never been asked to decide this before—it’s up to them.” The couple decided to have a Plan B in place—in case the Session did not permit them to have their ceremony in the building.

Session had a healthy, civil and thorough debate about this request, and voted to permit the union ceremony to take place in the building. The vote was not unanimous.

The Session is the second ring in the target. The next ring out from the center is our denomination The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). In November of 2013 some states permitted same-sex marriage, most did not. At the time, Presbyterian ministers could not preside at same-sex ceremonies that were claimed to be the equivalent of legal marriage. Here’s the wording that was in effect then:

Teaching elders [that is “ministers” or “pastors”] may not represent or imply that a religious ceremony of blessing for a same-gender couple “is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity, whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same- gender civil marriages.”

This situation put a lot of my colleagues in a bind. For example, Washington State permits same-sex marriage. A couple could get legally married there, but their Presbyterian pastor could not marry them in “an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony.” As I understood the rules I could not say that the ceremony was the equivalent of a traditional marriage. I could preside at a worship service at which people gathered to thank God for the love that two people had found in each other; at which they would publically proclaim their desire to be in a covenant relationship; I could lead prayers for the couple’s success and happiness; I could lead those gathered in offering support and encouragement to this couple; they could promise to be faithful to one another with the people who had gathered witnessing their promises; they could exchange rings; they could kiss; they could light a unity candle….the ceremony could look just like a wedding, I would just have to not say that in the eyes of the Presbyterian church what was happening was actually a marriage.

I think you see now why I called this sermon “It’s Complicated.”

Public opinion has changed very rapidly on this topic. In 2006 a Gallup poll asked this question: Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage? 39% said “yes;” 54% said “no.” The same question was asked in 2014, the percentages changed to 55% “yes” and 42% “no.”

In June of 2013, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed while Bill Clinton was president. “In the past 12 months, more than 70 lawsuits have been filed nationwide by the American Civil Liberties Union and couples who seek the same legal rights as their married heterosexual counterparts.” [Oshkosh Northwestern June 16, 2014, p. A6]

Last month, before General Assembly acted on this topic, the Covenant Network, a group of Presbyterians who have advocated full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations in the church issued this statement:

In one recent case challenging a pastor’s marriage to her same-gender partner, Presbytery of Newark v. Laurie McNeill, the GAPJC observed that the case “illustrates the tortuous place in which the PC(U.S.A.) finds itself on the matter of same-gender marriage.” “Our Constitution,” acknowledged the McNeill Commission, “did not anticipate the range of issues facing the church today surrounding same-gender relationships.” …[T]he McNeill Commission concluded that “[i]n light of the number of cases coming before this Commission and the convoluted grounds upon which cases are brought and decided, it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies whether civil or religious.” [Email from Covenant Network, June 16, 2014, written by Tim Cahn, an attorney and ruling elder]

At General Assembly last month things got a little less complicated. We voted to permit ministers in jurisdictions where same-gender marriage is legal to exercise their freedom of conscience to perform same-sex marriages. GA also recommended an amendment to the Book of Order “adjusting the definition of Christian marriage, changing the phrase ‘a man and a woman’ to ‘two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” [From a summary of GA distributed by The Presbyterian Outlook.] Presbyteries nationwide will vote on this, and other proposed amendments to the Book of Order, in  the coming year. 

That’s where we are today, as a denomination. If we agree on nothing else, I’m confident we can all agree this is a very complicated issue.

Now I want to take a brief look at some of the things the Bible says about marriage. I believe you’ll find this complicated too.

The first time marriage is mentioned in the Bible it’s in the Genesis lesson that Derek read. It’s as though marriage between a man and a woman is part of God’s original plan for Creation. But there are other models for marriage that we find in Genesis. For example, when Sarai was unable to bear a child for Abram, she offered her maid, Hagar to Abram, so that through Hagar Abram could have an heir. [Genesis 16]

Later in Genesis there’s the story of Jacob who loved Rachel, but who was tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah. You can read the details in chapter 29. What I want you to know is that after the deception was revealed, Jacob was able to marry Rachel, just a week after having married her sister.

When I hear people say that we should only practice marriage as it appears in the Bible, I ask them about this passage from Deuteronomy:

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, ‘I have no desire to marry her’, then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ Throughout Israel his family shall be known as ‘the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.’ [26:5-10]

This custom is played out, or not, in the dramatic fourth chapter of the Book of Ruth. Really, Boaz goes to the gate, speaks to the one who is closer relative to the newly-widowed Ruth than he is and when the nearer kinsman declines to marry Ruth, because such a marriage would damage his own inheritance. “So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, ‘Acquire it [that is the plot of land that belonged to Ruth’s deceased husband] yourself,’ he took off his sandal.” [Ruth 3:8] Note that Ruth was completely absent from this transaction.

King Solomon, reputed to be the wisest king and the author of Proverbs, is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. [1 Kings 11:3]

Oh, and here’s the story of Solomon’s parents. David spotted Bathsheba one day and found her to be very beautiful. Bathsheba was married to Uriah, an officer in David’s army. David arranged to have Uriah killed in battle, so he could marry the lovely widow. He did. She bore Solomon and later begged for Solomon to succeed David on the throne after David’s death.

The New Testament doesn’t have as much to say about marriage. Jesus’ first miracle in John’s gospel takes place at a wedding. Weddings in that culture were celebrated for days. After the celebration had started at the wedding in Cana they ran out of wine. Mary pointed this out to Jesus. Jesus instructed the steward of the wedding feast to draw some water out of the vessels that contained water for washing, and the water turned into good wine. Really, really good wine. The steward was really impressed and said to the groom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” [John 2:10] Now, technically this miracle isn’t really about marriage, per se it just happens at a wedding.

OK the lesson from Matthew is interesting because it points out that Old Testament law only permitted men to divorce their wives. There was no mechanism for a wife to divorce her husband. And Jesus makes marriage even more binding as the Pharisees try to trick him.

Finally, there’s some troubling words about marriage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none,…[7:26-29]

This seems like a very, harsh, negative view of marriage, and it is. And that phrase, ‘those who marry will experience distress in this life” sounds like it come from “The Lockhorns,” not the New Testament. But we need to read this, as we need to read everything in the Bible with an eye to its context. Paul believed that Christ was going to return at any moment. In light of that expectation, he believed one should not go through the ordeal of planning a wedding and an elaborate feast. He believed they should give their attention to other things—and everything he could imagine was less important than the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In modern terms, Paul was telling the Corinthians, “Don’t buy green bananas.” Now there are Christians who have looked at this passage and taken a very dim view of marriage. And Christians who have taken this passage and used it as a basis to advocate for celibacy, even celibacy in marriage! I believe we can learn from it and understand what Paul’s trying to convey without being bound by its literal meaning. In that context, with the current world view, it made perfect sense to say that. We’re in a different time, place and culture. And that’s one of the many reasons why the Christian faith is hard, we try to use the Bible as a guide. We believe that its words, when interpreted with the presence of the Holy Spirit, are living and holy. But we live in a much different age. So, as people who live in this age, I invite you to talk more about marriage following worship this morning in the Library.