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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 23, 2011

And Why Marriage Equality Is So Blessedly Important

Whereas, a just society guarantees to all of its citizens certain civil rights and, Whereas, every adult deserves the opportunity to attain the legal protections and safeguards gained through civil marriage and, Whereas, the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island affirms and promotes the Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles of: The inherent worth and dignity of every person, Justice equity and compassion in human relations and World community, liberty, peace and justice for all,

We, the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, by a vote of our membership, endorse marriage equality in the state of Rhode Island. Further, we call upon Rhode Island’s legislators to pass this legislation and for the Governor of Rhode Island to sign it into law.

— Presented by the First Unitarian Church’s Standing on the Side of Love Committee, and Endorsed by the Prudential Committee, for a vote of the Congregation

Out of the horror that took place in Tucson on Saturday the 8th of January, amidst the fear and blood, there were several notable acts of heroism. I think of Dorwan Stoddard the seventy-six year old retired construction worker who as soon as he realized what was happening, threw his wife to the ground and his body over hers. She survived. He didn’t. I picture that event and cannot get out of my head. I am glad I can’t.

And who is now unaware of Daniel Hernandez, a twenty-year old junior at the University of Arizona, in his fifth day as an unpaid intern for Representative Giffords, and his actions in those awful moments? He wasn’t standing very close when the boy put a bullet through the representative’s head and then began spraying shots into the crowd. By his own account maybe forty feet away, Daniel simply started running toward the shooting. He ran toward the shooting. Another set of images I cannot get out of my head and am glad I cannot. Pictures naturally took shape in my mind of those firemen and policemen racing into the Twin Towers. Asked about this, Daniel who had limited nurse’s aid training in High School, felt, it really all happened too fast to say he thought, felt he could put that training to good use.

He had already assisted a couple of people when he found the congresswoman lying on the ground. He propped her up on his chest to stop her from choking on her own blood. At first he tried to staunch her wounds with his hands. Then took smocks someone brought out from the Safeway and created makeshift bandages that more or less did the job. Staying with the representative, holding her up, holding off the bleeding, at the same time he advised others how to help those they were tending. Medical authorities say it is almost certain that Daniel’s actions saved Gabrielle Giffords’ life.

In the hours that followed, when told he was a hero, he demurred, saying it was the EMTs and the surgeons who were the real heroes. Later, at the memorial service, standing before the president of the United States, indeed, standing before the nation, he added a list of those he thought should be considered heroes other than him self. It was a list of those who serve. With his words and his poise, Daniel stole America’s heart.

Perhaps you know this, perhaps you don’t. Daniel is gay. Even when given a national platform he felt he had things more important than civil rights for BGLT people to address. Not closeted, Daniel was among other things a member of the city’s Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues. He simply had other things on his plate in those moments.

It falls to us to point out some facts. It falls to you and to me. When the time comes, when he finds love, when he is ready to make a life commitment, Daniel’s state will turn its back on him. He may be a hero, but he will not be allowed to marry. He is not yet fully accepted as a citizen with all the rights of other citizens. Because he is gay.

On the 1st of May in 2004 Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to extend the full rights of marriage to its gay and lesbian residents. It was an amazing year. Like for many other liberal clergy serving churches there, I performed weddings small and private and grand and public, and lots of them. At first people were afraid the right would be taken away, as has happened since, tragically, in Maine and California. For those anxious this victory would be snatched from them, I performed several quiet weddings, where larger public events were planned for later, just in case.

In the larger weddings, the public ones, the ones in our church, when I would say “By the authority vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I pronounce you married,” people would clap and cheer, the first time that standing ovation took over five minutes before I could move on to the conclusion of the service. Eventually the urgency passed. Gradually these weddings and the marriages that followed become more normal. Then, slowly, it became, as it should, ordinary. Just something people who are lucky in love get to do.

But those first months, that first year: those were heady moments, when justice prevailed, and human rights were celebrated on the streets and in churches and in homes. They are seared into my memory, into my heart. And, I am deeply aware of how close we are to achieving the same thing here in Rhode Island. We can be one of those states that would genuinely welcome Daniel Hernandez and so many others, acknowledging their humanity, their ability to love, to care for another, to raise children, to be full citizens.

Our governor is taking heat for it, but he is standing firm in favor of marriage equality moving forward in our legislature. The bills to give all citizens a chance at marriage have been introduced to the House and to the Senate. Today, a strong majority in the House stands for marriage equality. And, we are within reach of winning the Senate. It can happen this legislative session. Marriage equality in Rhode Island can be achieved.

Our Standing on the Side of Love committee has presented a petition to the congregation to take a public stand in favor of these bills, as a community of faith to stand with Daniel Hernandez and all those who are denied their rights and to proclaim a new day. And, I am standing here asking you to throw your hearts fully into the matter and to vote for justice in our state.

There are serious reasons why I ask you to do this. Let’s pause just for a moment to explore what this is about, and why we need to take this stand, not just as individuals but together, as a church. Why this is so compelling may not immediately seem obvious. We are an open congregation with no creed, but rather a covenant of presence each of us to the other. And this means we need a diversity of opinion among us. So, we should be reluctant to take communal stands that might make some feel excluded. I believe it should be rare, and among us it has been. In 2003 a vote for the congregation to oppose the invasion of Iraq failed by just a few votes. In fact the last time we can find the congregation took such a stand was in favor of open housing, some forty years ago.

Still, while necessarily rare, there are moments that beckon, that demand people of good will speak up and take a stand. Among the ancient Greeks and later in Christian theology these compelling moments are called kairos, the right time, the time of fulfillment. Absolutely, there are such moments when a church must proclaim from pulpit and pew what is right.

So, before we move into our deliberations, before we take the first of the two votes our bylaws require for us to do such a thing, we need to hold up a couple of questions, to look for ourselves, and to see if this is that moment.

First, we need to ask what is marriage for? Well, from very early on our communities have acknowledged special relationships between people. To some degree marriage has always been about childrearing. But, more to the point it has in fact mostly been about property, about who owns what, who controls what, and who inherits what. For much of human history, and in many different cultures around the world, that property included spouses, near as I can tell, pretty much always wives, and, of course, children.

Additionally, anyone who actually surveys cultures over history learns that marriage has only sometimes been a covenant between one man and one woman. Rather, history shows that polygamy has been a recurring theme, very nearly universal, if in many cultures reserved for the wealthy and powerful. Polyandry is much rarer, but still it happens, as well. And also in various times and places people of the same gender have had their relationships sanctioned within their cultures. Bottom line, there have been many “normals” among human societies.

Our views of marriage have been in constant flux. Over the years since our republic was formed we have changed our divorce laws, have allowed women to own property on their own, forbad spousal rape, allowed the use of contraception (a major, major point profoundly shifting the assumption that marriage and child bearing and rearing are necessarily connected), and in recent decades and only after a great struggle we have allowed inter-racial marriage.

Attitudes change, and with them, societal ideals of what is normal. At the same time that the public conscience was moved by calls for racial civil rights, and then for the full civil rights of women, we began to notice how blithely we had been scapegoating homosexual people for various societal ills. Slowly we began a long journey toward realizing how oppressed BGLT people have been. And many of us have recoiled in shame at the horrors perpetrated upon them and have moved steadily toward a new day of justice. The struggles continue. The issues of race are not over. Women still struggle for full equality. And of those denied full rights, those still most clearly oppressed with the most astonishing justifications are BGLT people. We don’t even let gay people marry. Not in most of our states. Not in Rhode Island.

And, so, now we are now engaged in one more civil rights struggle, to bring about full civil rights for gay and lesbian people. And marriage rights are at the heart of the matter. Allowing BGLT people to serve openly in our armed forces is very important. But, the central symbol of our acknowledging the full humanity of Daniel Hernandez is acknowledging the civil right to marriage for people regardless of their sexual orientation.

Here’s a critical point. This matter is not in fact primarily about religion. It is about civil rights. Specifically it is about the right of same gender couples to have access to something in the area of one thousand and fifty rights enumerated in federal law and depending on the state where the marriage is acknowledged, something approaching four hundred separate rights, each of them civil rights. The original concept of marriage being about property hasn’t actually changed all that much.

But, here’s where religion comes into the matter. Probably the most problematic aspect of religions is the ways in which they support the status quo of the cultures within which they exist. That’s why we see Bishop Tobin, representative of the largest religious community in our state sitting with the governor and other dignitaries at important events. His presence blesses the way things are.

And when the bishop or other religious leaders speaking out in support of the status quo, of giving the sanction of religion to the way things have “always” been, in this specific situation providing a veneer of sanctity to bigotry - that has power. As people of faith, but people whose faith has led us to examine the matter closely without the distorting lens of received and unexamined wisdom, the vast majority of us have come to the conclusion marriage rights for same sex couples are nothing less than civil rights they are being denied, unjustly, wrongly, immorally. And so, as people of faith, in the din of hatred that is being proclaimed by various religions of love, we must stand up and we must speak out. We must stand authentically, we must stand unequivocally, we must stand on the side of love.

You and I, as people of faith, as Unitarian Universalists, as members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, we need to stand on the side of love.

And the moment is at hand.

Here, today, we stand at a moment in history, a moment that trembles with import. Kairos. The right time. The time of fulfillment. We are being asked as a community of faith to take a stand. It isn’t easy. It means some among us will be hurt. But, if our faith means anything, if we are to be more than a club for liberally minded folk, then we must make a hard choice.

Although if we genuinely open our hearts, is it really that hard? Here’s the real question. Do we stand with those who might be offended, or with those whose civil rights are being denied? Let us remember Daniel Hernandez and all those who wait for justice.

What does your faith call you to?

Silence or justice?

The time is at hand.

Let us stand on the side of love.