The Case for Marriage…and Gun Control

A Sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Audio Recording

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Opening words

Welcome to this sacred space, this sacred time, all the more sacred in this time of trial, when fear and anxiety and anger and distrust and prejudice dominate so much of our national dialogue and the issues of our days.  Here is a place and a time when we acknowledge, but do not give into, fear.  Where we examine our anxieties for the issues we need to approach and seek to understand.  Where we turn our anger, ultimately, away from hate and destruction, towards hope and humanity.  Where we wrestle with our own and others’ distrust to win our way towards connection and commitment.  Where we recognize prejudice is real and present in all of us, part of the ground we must till and treat and nurture until the harvest of love we seek within and beyond ourselves, begins to bloom.  We have a lot to do, beautiful sacred space within which to do it, each other to help.  May we make the most of this day we have been given, starting now, together.

Audio Recording

To listen to this prayer, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box


We cannot be saved by anyone, or anything, but each other.

Source of all,
This is my third attempt at a prayer.
The first two revealed to me that I am angry,
which I didn’t realize until I just couldn’t bend my prayers into what I thought they should be.

What is wrong with us, how can we be so depraved and cruel, how is it we do not learn, how can we not have become better than this, how will we ever get better than this, why is it taking so long, why must so many people suffer while we still refuse to value each other, to free each other, to lift each other?

How is it that we are so beautiful and so ugly, so blessed and so cursed?

Refugees continue to flee for their lives to nations where they know nothing and no one, not even the language; people within these nations of refuge point fingers and name the refugees as the threat, as the problem, as the illness not the symptom, as the danger and not the victims.

Undocumented immigrants risk everything, even death, to come here to this land that prides itself on opportunity and peace and plenty, and we meet them with distrust, condemnation, imprisonment, expulsion and estrangement, sometimes permanent isolation, from their families.

“Children are real beyond all lies” we sing.  The gun lobby lures and bribes and strongarms our representatives into silence and ignorance and defensiveness and hypocrisy and worst of all, the dissemination of more guns, while our people, our children, are slaughtered.

Violence is fashionable, sexism is ubiquitous and entrenched, racism is fatal and defiant, Russia is pulling our strings, and we are rolling back all commitments to safeguard our planet, its climate, its resources, its future, our future.  Oh my blood boils and my hands shake and my mind shudders with urgency and fury.

So.  So.  So let me lay my anger aside, fold it carefully with my rageful hands and I will take it out later, rant and rend it later, give it to you, Source of All, if you are there to receive it, later.

But now, let us pray our grief for all those who have died in fear and horror.
Let us pray our hope for those whose lives hang in the balance now,
even as we breathe in this moment, may they recover, may they live.
Let us pray for those who have just lost someone they love, may they be held in their grief.
Let us pray for those on a boat that is tossing in a bitter sea today or tomorrow.
Let us pray for those crossing a freezing desert today or tomorrow.

Let us pray for those in detention.  Let us pray for those in hiding and in sanctuary.

Let us pray for our military, embroiled in conflicts that seem to have no end.  And for the nations and people where our military is, that peace, a good peace, a hopeful peace, may yet be found by miracle and wisdom.

Let us pray for all those whose bodies have been violated, knowing that every time, their souls are violated also.

Let us pray for all people who are vulnerable because of the color of our skin.  And let us pray for all the many law officers who struggle with their own perceptions, with the ways they are perceived, who seek to serve and keep the peace.

We pray that they all survive, every single one, every person in peril, every child, every youth, every soul, every parent and grandparent, every soul, every desperate soul.

And may we understand that our prayers are not enough, may our own growing awareness of their courage and desperation become action, action that helps them be met with safety and warmth and respect, recognized as our own, of our own making, of our own family.

May we not pray for intervention, salvation, completion, redemption, those tired prayers that assume saving is someone else’s work, only God’s work. May we instead understand that we cannot be saved by or for anyone, or anything, but each other.

Each other is what we are given and all that will save us.
This planet is all we have and all that will save us.
Our own honor is all we have and all that will save us.
Each others’ humanity is all we have and all that will save us.
All that we are, all we will be known for, all we will be judged by, all that will intervene for us, save us, complete us, redeem us is us.  Us.

Audio Recording

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No, this sermon is not really what the title suggests –  it’s not about everyone needing gun control legislation in order for people to safely stay married over time.   In this month when our themes have been perseverance and love, I had planned to preach a sermon about the value of traditional marriage, which I understand as a blessing and a sacrament, an adventure of the soul, a faithful lifetime commitment between two people, regardless of gender, to hold each other in unique love and respect and make each other the foundation of family.   I can’t bear to leave it there, because I think there’s a lot going unsaid, maybe even unthought, about marriage these days.  And in fact, marriage and gun control do go together in ways that I will be so pleased to dwell on this morning.

So let me start by pointing out that all our religion’s work for marriage equality was predicated on some assumptions that are even ironic points of agreement with the religious right: that faithful, traditional marriage between two believing and committed souls is a social cornerstone and a sacred institution.  Except that for religious liberals if marriage is a real and legitimate good, then it ought to be available to all regardless of gender.  Marriage is a sacrament because it is a sacred ritual – the ritual part is obvious – and it’s sacred because of its transformative power, because it can work with a godlike power in our lives.  Here’s the theology piece in a nutshell.  And for this, I invite you to do what I always do when I’m listening to a definition of God that may not align with my own: please define or redefine the word ‘God’ in whatever ways do align with your own theology and however you understand and experience the divine.

Love is akin to God.  Love is akin to God in that love gives us strength, hope, happiness, belief in ourselves, relief in grief, endurance in despair. We all long for it, even pray for it, as fiercely as any mystic longs for God.  And if and when we find it, we give ourselves to it, aware that any limits to our loving are our own, ours to discover or set or transcend.  Union leads to communion, and communion to union, they are self-perpetuating­­­­ and will always take us deeper if we let them.

Which is why it’s troubling that though we worked so hard for marriage equality, we don’t do much to actually support actual marriages once they’ve happened.  We don’t have a lot of resources to help couples maintain or deepen these relationships, we don’t have a lot of resources available to help couples weather crises that challenge or undermine these relationships,  and we don’t have a lot of resources to help couples either recommit to these relationships or exit them, if they must, with as much grace and faithfulness as possible.  So – this is an important set of ideas for me, and I’ll circle back to them with more depth and artistry another time.  But for now, I need to segue out of this to my second topic and I’d like to do that by reminding us that –marriage – is a big deal and has always been a big deal, going back many thousands of years.

2500 years ago, in ancient Greece, for all the Greek myths about great love – and great lust – marriage wasn’t about those at all.  It was about the procreation of legitimate children.  Explicitly.  And only.  That’s literally what the marriage vows said.  They were exchanged between the groom and the father of the bride and the father said: “ I give this woman for the procreation of legitimate children.”

That is still part of what marriage is so often, and so fortunately, about.  Children are the purpose and gift of individuals and families and cultures and societies and civilizations and… and… you get my point.  Our second hymn lifts up so well the utter preciousness of children, whose sacredness is not only the future they will shape but the magic and insights and love of their present: their naturalness, their singing, their glee, their freedom and love and light, their wonder – nothing matters more.  This makes what we have come to all the worse.

As some of you know, we got a puppy this week – he is too young yet to be left alone for more than an hour or two, so he’s hiding out in the balcony with my husband this morning.  You’ll hopefully be seeing him around church when he gets a little older and his immune system is more developed.  But already, being present with this tiny new life only 8 weeks old in our 300 year old house is reminding me, yet again, how much, constant, effort it takes to keeps young lives safe.  The endless vigilance and love and supplies and diversions and encouragement and support and nurture.  Every one of us around here in adulthood is a testament to others’ vigilance that we didn’t trip going down stairs or fall off a cliff or eat something poisonous or step into the street in front of a car or crash our bike or fall into a pool or a lake or, or, or.  And there was luck involved too – because in fact everyone I know has fallen down stairs or crashed our bike or fallen into a pool or gotten really, really sick – despite the vigilance.  So yes, luck, because no vigilance is ever, truly enough to keep those we love safe.

And I look around, often – especially, sometimes at the young people in our military, and think of all the care that went into raising those strong individuals, into keeping them alive and healthy and whole and growing and capable – and about the incredible destruction they are always preparing for.  And that is bad enough.

To think that our schools should be becoming such an incredibly destructive environment – is unbearable, and unacceptable.  I really mean it.  Unbearable.  Unacceptable.  Meaning we will not bear it, and we will not accept it.

Do you hear that Florida legislature?  Your days are surely numbered.  Though I certainly appreciate you giving me such compellingly vile sermon fodder.  I don’t know how you can look yourselves, let alone your constituents, your people, in the eye.  I don’t know how you could have let gun control legislation die, while the surviving youth of Stoneman Douglas High School were present in the chamber watching.  But then, you seem fine with needless death after all.  You have literally sold out your own state’s children’s lives – did you think you could do that with impunity?   And then, the gall, you advance a bill that all schools must display a sign saying “In God We Trust?!”   Did you mean that to be a joke?  You know, that their only hope is a benevolent god because students in Florida certainly can’t trust in a benevolent legislature, meaning you, the representatives tasked with serving and helping and safeguarding your people.

But it’s not enough to deride people doing dreadful things somewhere far away.  And it’s easy to deride the NRA and their pro-slaughter agenda.  It’s not enough for me and it’s not enough for us.  What matters now isn’t our outrage, not even the clarity of corruption and soullessness in to many of our nation’s legislators, it’s what we’re going to do about it.  Starting now.  And until we’ve made the change we demand.

The day before the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, I was meeting with clergy and activist colleagues about a proposal I wanted to make.  It’s based on a worship service I heard about from the church that hosts the Revolutionary Love conference that a bunch of First U people are attending in New York in April.  A couple of years ago they did a Swords to Ploughshares service to affirm their support for gun control.  They brought a real, disabled long gun into their worship space on Sunday morning, dedicated it and gave it to a blacksmith to turn into a gardening tool.

I thought that was a powerful, real world, faith statement.  It’s based on a line that comes up in the Hebrew Bible multiple times, most notable in Isaiah 2:4: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neighbor shall they learn war any more.”  This was, of course, from a time with the idea of citizens of a nation using weapons of warfare against each other was not an issue.

I thought about bringing that ritual here – tough as it is.  I anticipate that it will be hard for many of us to have a gun in our meeting house, our worship space, our sanctuary.  It will be hard for me.  I would never do such a thing lightly.  But this isn’t the time for delicacy and gentleness, this is a time for real responses to real threats that are strong and serious and hard.   And even that – I thought, it isn’t enough.  It’s too predictable that a UU church is coming down on the side of gun control and while the spectacle might garner us an article in the Providence Journal, maybe even some local television coverage, it would not surprise anyone or change anything.  In the end it would be more about us and raising our profile than making a difference on the issue.  We needed something that is bigger.  And that’s when I realized I wanted to ask my colleagues across our city, maybe even across our state, to join me.  I wanted to see this ritual roll like a wave, a mighty wave of worship, dedicating guns again and again, across a whole weekend, on Friday night and Saturday mornings in synagogues and mosques, on Sunday morning in Christian and non-denominational and UU churches.    All of us, across so many faiths and cultures, saying ‘no more’ and not just to support gun control in general but in specific – three bills coming up in Rhode Island this year – an assault weapons ban, a ‘no guns in schools’ law that prohibits anyone except a trained police officer from bringing guns into our schools, and and ERPO or Extreme Risk Protection Order bill that allows families or household members, as well as law enforcement officers to petition a court to remove someone’s access to guns, including guns they already possess, if they pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.

I reached out to my colleague and friend, Senior Rabbi Howard Voss Altman over at Temple Beth-El and he said yes and offered to work with me on this.  I reached out to our own Rev. Gene Dyslewski to ask if he thought this could work and he said yes and offered to convene a meeting – that same meeting that happened the day before the Parkland shooting.  A bunch of clergy from different faiths came to that meeting and agreed to do this.  Howard, myself and Rev. Kurt Walker, a local UCC minister, are heading the interfaith effort.  Representatives from Moms Demand Action and Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence came and agreed to work with us on this.  We found a weekend we could all commit to – as weekend that is poignant and hard and right, both for the legislative calendar and for its meaning: Mother’s Day.

So this is happening.  Plans are afoot for the larger roll-out and for our own service.  I look forward to creating, all of us, the most inclusive and powerful and real service we can craft together, adults and youth, some of us new to this fight, some of us who helped create the quilt we display every year at the Sandy Hook vigil – the quilt made from the clothing of children killed by gun violence.  The Swords to Plowshares clergy group is working to find an artist or group of artists and artisans to work with.  We will buy handguns or assault weapons, get them disabled, bring them to our houses of worship, dedicate them, and give them to be made into gardening tools or art.  There is more than one artist working locally who is converting guns to art.  Some of them make guns into metal art.  Some of them make molds of the guns, and them cast the molds with glass – a glass gun, to remind us of the fragility of life, or cast the molds with melted crayon – a crayon gun, to remind us of the terrible conjunctions of children and guns.  The money they make from their cast guns, they use to buy more guns from police buyback programs, taking more guns off the streets and out of the weapons pipeline.

After worship, we will gather in our congregations to write letters and postcards to our legislators – all of us, all ages, children, youth, adults, families, singles, of all colors and cultures and faiths, telling them they must pass this legislation.  My hope is that we will gather that Monday after Mother’s Day to deliver, in person, our letters and cards, the photographs of our selves and our families, our classes from school and from Sunday school, to our legislators, each to our representatives at the State House.  We will fill the space with the people from our congregations and neighborhoods.  They will see that we are many.  They will see that our commitment and our requirements are absolute.  And some of them will welcome us as allies.  And some of them will dread us as opponents.  Which they need not do because, after all, we come in peace to save our lives and maybe theirs as well.

We will not be a country, a state, a city, that provisions itself for mass murder, that preys upon any of our people, least of all our children, with assault weapons to empower the disgruntled, the vengeful, the mentally ill, or anyone, anyone at all.  We will not be the puppets or the pathway for the gun lobby and gun manufacturers and ammunition manufacturers rubbing their bloody hands in anticipation of the profits from armed educators, armed universities and colleges, armed student bodies, firearms classes for gym, bullets in the check-out aisle of the grocery store, candy-colored bullets to go with the candy-colored guns they are already making, shootouts over road rage and parking spaces and who’s next in a waiting line.  We are not going there.  We reject everything about that agenda of slaughter and bloodshed and most despicable of all, the profit, the profiteering of the gunmakers and ammunition makers who think they can make even more of their carnage-driven earnings with the ever-more- outrageous and arrogant and ignorant pronouncements of their lobbyists and, God help them, with the blood of our children.

Our cities and neighborhoods and states and congregations are communities of people.  We are people for whom life, love, justice, peace and hope for all – these are paramount.  We insist on gun-free spaces for us to educate our children, to worship in our faith, to gather for music and dancing and celebration, safety that comes not with the weaponizing of our society, but with the removal of assault weapons from our communities, the removal of guns from all schools and the removal of guns from the hands of those who are not fit to bear them.  This is not complicated.  This is not negotiable.   This is it.  We are committed and we will not stop.  Perseverence and love are exactly the right themes for now.  We will persevere, for love.  The guns, the guns are what will stop, the guns will stop and the people, the youth, the children, will live.  Amen!

Audio Recording

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Closing Words

Yes!  We are building a new way.  We are finding it together.  It isn’t easy and that’s okay.  We don’t expect it to be easy.  We won’t back down. Every step matters, and we are taking them together.  We will not accept the way things are and we will see, make, safeguard, and rock this world with our love.  Blessed be.