A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, CA
on Sunday, September 8, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Ruth 1:16-17
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I was getting ready for General Synod when the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision that affirmed the decision of the Ninth Circuit that overturned Proposition 8.  I rejoiced at the news that, once again, same-gender couples could be legally married in California.  With that decision, the percentage of the US population living in a state with equal marriage rights stands at 30%.[i]  Equal marriage rights are available in 13 states and the District of Columbia.[ii]

I had planned to go to the press conference at Grace Cathedral when the decision was announced.  Regardless of which way the decision went, clergy and faith leaders had planned to gather at Grace Cathedral to speak in favor of marriage equality.  When I heard the decision, I knew the press conference would be a celebration, but I ended up in a car, driving to Long Beach, for General Synod, the biennial national meeting of the United Church of Christ.

I was at the UCC’s General Synod in 2005, in Atlanta, when an equal marriage rights resolution[iii] was adopted.  We were the first American denomination to call for this, and the moment the resolution passed was a holy moment, a God-infused moment.  It seemed poetic to me that the resolution was adopted on the 4th of July, Independence Day.

Three years later, the justice called for in this resolution came to California.  For four-and-a-half brief months, same-gender couples had the right to enter into the contract of marriage.  And for four-and-a-half brief months, I had the right to solemnize this legal contract.  Then the November elections happened and our rights were taken away.  While I continued to officiate at weddings, I decided that, as a matter of conscience, I could no longer sign anyone’s legal contract paperwork until the State allowed me to sign everyone’s legal paperwork.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, our rights have been restored.

The United Church of Christ has a long and proud history of calling for justice.  The Disciples of Christ’s history isn’t focused here as much.  Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the origins of the DOC.  The theological forefathers of the denomination broke away from Presbyterianism because of the dogma that was being forced on them.  The Stone/Campbell movement took the position that scripture was the only rule of faith.  Any catechism, any doctrine, any resolution was written by a human and, therefore, fallible.  I think this philosophy has become part of the DNA of the DOC, so there is a resistance to adopting resolutions that take a stand.

On the other hand, the UCC has a long history of taking stands in resolutions and actions.  There is a litany of historical firsts in the UCC, including:[iv]  the first to ordain a woman, an African American, and an openly gay man in the United States; the first to publish a pamphlet against slavery in the United States; the first to create a foreign mission society in the United States; the first college, the first co-ed college, and the first school for the deaf in the United States; and, as I said, the UCC was the first denomination to call for equal marriage rights in the United States.

So, today I invite you to join me in celebrating the fulfillment of this call in our state.  Yes, 70% of the US population still lives in states that don’t have full marriage equality.  Yes, there are 37 states that offer somewhere between less than full equality and nothing at all.  But today I want to focus on what has been accomplished.  And one of the ways I want to celebrate this with you is by preforming a legal wedding today.

Why, I’ve been asked, are we celebrating this legal wedding in the midst of worship?  I actually wonder why we celebrate weddings at time other than when the community of faith is gathered together.  If part of a wedding is the community’s witnessing and blessing the covenant and contract made at a wedding, doesn’t it make sense for it to happen when the community is gathered?  Sure, the community gathers at times other than Sunday mornings and the community could gather on a Tuesday night or a Saturday afternoon to witness and bless a wedding.  But when a couple is already part of the faith community, especially when the couple’s deepest ties to the area are through the faith community, why not do this during a regular worship service?

Mark and JT were married 8 years ago in North Carolina.  Of course it wasn’t a legal marriage.  Then a temporary job brought Mark and JT to California.  And then their right to make their marriage legal was restored.  And so they decided to do something about it.  What better place and time to do this than here and now?

But this is not just a celebration of justice.  As much as Dr. Cornell West may be right – that justice is what love looks like in public – this isn’t just a celebration justice and love.  Every wedding – whether the religious covenant, the legal contract, or both – is about commitment.

I know we like to think that weddings are about love – and they are.  I know we like to think that weddings are about trust – and they are.  I know we like to think that weddings are about honesty – and they are.  I know we like to think that weddings are about forgiveness – and they are.  Underneath all these is a foundation, and that foundation is commitment.

You see, sometimes your partner is not very loveable.  Sometimes things happen that make trusting your partner difficult.  Sometimes it’s scary to be honest with your partner.  Sometimes it’s just hard to forgive your partner.  It is commitment that keeps a marriage a marriage when love comes difficultly, when trust is bruised, honesty is scary, and when forgiveness seems far away.

I read recently that when Benedict wrote his rule for monasteries in the sixth century he included specific instructions for how a novice would be received into the monastic community.  “The new and presumably young novice would enter a room called the oratory and vow stability, fidelity and obedience.  Then he would say, ‘Receive me, Lord, as you have promised, and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope’ (Ps. 119:116, Rule of St. Benedict).  Benedict would then instruct the novice to pull off his street clothes and put on the habit of the monks.  We would expect this.

“But the next thing is surprising:  the old street clothes were to be placed in the monk’s closet.”[v]

Now, one might wonder why Benedict would be so concerned about the preservation of these street clothes.   To be honest, I would have thought that Benedict would have demanded that the old clothes be burned, making the vow to become a monk permanent.  But, it turns out, Benedict had his reasons.

“By leaving the street clothes in his closet, the monk confronted two habits every morning for the rest of his life.   He could put on the habit of the monk or return to the habit of the streets and leave the monastery.  He had to keep choosing what he had chosen.”[vi]  He had to keep choosing his commitment.

It struck me as I read this that the same is true for marriage.  Perhaps those of you who are married could create your own daily ritual with your wedding ring where you choose your commitment again each day.

It is the theme of commitment that makes the passage from Ruth so oddly appropriate for weddings.  I say “oddly” because Naomi and Ruth are mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.  The book of Ruth tells us that Naomi’s husband and sons died, leaving three women to fend for themselves.  Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to return to Moab and to the families.  Orpah does, but Ruth refuses.  Ruth had made a commitment to be part of her new family and she decides to stick with it.

“Where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge I will lodge.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die and there I will be buried.”  With those profound words, Ruth reaffirms her commitment.

So, in the spirit of Ruth’s reaffirmation of her commitment, I invite JT and Mark to come forward and to join Pastor Brenda and me in the chancel.


[i] “States,” Freedom to Marry, http://www.freedomtomarry.org/states/ (14 September 2013).

[ii] Ibid.

[iv] You can read more about these UCC firsts at http://www.ucc.org/about-us/ucc-firsts.html.

[v] Craig Barnes, “Boxed in,” Christian Century, 21 August 2013, p. 35.

[vi] Ibid.