The Best that Love Can Be

The Best that Love Can Be
by Rev. Diane Teichert

This is my first visit to the real Davies Memorial UU Church, but I’ve been here virtually, on your website, that is, perusing the sermons of your namesake A. Powell Davies. I thank you for posting them. Being new to the DC area nearly three years ago, I needed to get to know him and you made it easy. Your sibling congregation Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, where I serve, was founded in 1954 by All Souls members meeting at the University of Maryland-College Park in barrack like temporary classrooms, where they heard his sermons over a radio-wave connection. It’s been good to be here for real this morning!

My previous settled ministry was in Massachusetts where my congregation had been enlivened by organizing for marriage equality and, subsequently, by the presence of more gay and lesbian people among us. So, I was prepared and excited to do that work here in Maryland. In my first year at PBUUC, I announced (with the congregation’s support) that I will not sign Maryland marriage licenses until it is legal to sign them for gay as well as straight couples, so now the latter must get theirs signed at the court house if I am to officiate their wedding, and so far they’ve been glad to support the cause in that way.

And, actually, I believe that’s the way it should be: why should clergy represent the state as the signer of marriage licenses? It should be civil marriage for all couples, gay or straight, with religious wedding ceremonies for those who desire them. But, that’s not the way it is, so we are fighting for the right to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples. And we are getting close in Maryland! We may be the first state to win it by popular vote!

Memorial Day Weekend may be an odd choice for a sermon on marriage equality, but I am now the co-chair of the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland’s campaign on the marriage equality referendum expected to be on the ballot this Election Day, so I am looking for opportunities to speak with UU’s whenever I can. Your interim minister, Bruce Marshall, didn’t choose a patriotic topic for his sermon in my pulpit this morning, either. His there is Radical Hospitality, which fits perfectly with some of our new efforts, and I hope people will be there to hear him even though it’s a holiday weekend.

Marriage equality may not be a patriotic topic, but the fact that President Obama, and then the NAACP, came out to endorse it recently makes it seem more patriotic! It just might become the law of our state, if not our nation, very soon! In fact, since those endorsements, a new Public Policy Poll of Maryland voters shows a decisive majority (57%) would vote in favor of same-sex marriage if it’s on the ballot this fall, while 37% would vote against. This is a 12-point swing in support from two months earlier and shows growing African-American support in Maryland.
However, this anonymous support on the phone must be turned into votes in the ballot booth! And, that’s where UU’s can make a difference!

Despite the fact that summer doesn’t begin for four more weeks, Memorial Day Weekend is the traditional start of summer (and this year, the weather is confirming it!). So, an article in the Washington Post yesterday speculated about the songs we’d be singing come Labor Day Weekend. Which will be the summer’s catchiest tunes? The ones that we hear on the radio, Ipod or YouTube and then cannot get out of our heads? I muttered to myself, I hope the lyrics are more creative than the usual pop tune lyrics, some variation of, “Oh, baby, I can’t live without you!”

That’s not my kind of romance. Really… such dependence is not healthy in committed relationships … gay or straight…

Kahlil Gibran was my kind of romantic. The Lebanese-American poet in the early twentieth century wrote of marriage, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love.” He’d have none of this “without you, I am nobody” and neither do I.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t feel sad when a relationship ends or a long-time lover, spouse or partner dies. Like in the story I told for the Time for All Ages: after Mouse died, and Cat looked around the house, everything Cat saw reminded Cat of Mouse. It happens that way sometimes. We mourn, for mourn we must, and if there had been love, there is pain. Pain is the price we pay for having loved.

And, for a time, the lover that death, divorce or a break-up left behind really may feel that he or she cannot go on, that the spirit of life has disappeared, that his or her self-worth is in the tank … that’s what grief sometimes does.

But life does goes on. “Oh, baby, I can’t live without you” is just not true. We can live on our own. But, many of us prefer to share our lives with another.

This long-time loving one another… with spaces in your togetherness and the winds of the heavens dancing between you… isn’t easy to maintain. It’s the kind of love that makes a family, and makes a home of a house or apartment, condo or townhouse, and nurtures any children in that home to grow and become loving, secure and productive citizens. It’s the kind of committed relationships that we are trying to support in extending the rights and responsibilities of marriage to gay and lesbian couples.

Those commitments are rarely easy to keep. Maybe that’s why state law here has approximately 400 provisions* that help married couples, married heterosexual couples, that is, stay married. These same supports, which my husband and I enjoy, will be available to gay and lesbian couples when they are allowed to marry, and to the children in their homes.

It’s not easy to stay committed through the hard times of married life, but if you’ve signed that marriage license and perhaps declared your vows before family and friends, you might be more likely to make the effort – usually involving honesty – that gets you through the hard times to a deeper, more intimate, more joyful place. I think we owe gay and lesbian couples the same reinforcement when the going gets rough for them.

How can Unitarian Universalists articulate our support of marriage equality as people of faith? I’d like to share with you a reflection written and presented to our congregation by one of our Worship Associates, John Sebastian, a gay man in a long-term relationship, outlining his six reasons for supporting equal marriage, two of which are patriotic:

“I suppose first and foremost, that I support Marriage Equality for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered people because as a Unitarian Universalist, I profess our first UU Principle of respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Respect and fairness for all people has been imprinted into my basic belief system for as long as I can remember. When I first read the UU Principles, I knew immediately that I had found a religion and religious community that meshed with my own ideas of morality and fairness to all people. We Unitarian Universalists honor and celebrate all loving relationships, regardless of the sexual orientation of the individuals involved. It is for exactly this reason that my partner Michael Léger and I chose to join Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church a few months after checking out what Unitarian Universalism offers to the world.

2) I believe in Marriage Equality because I believe Thomas Jefferson’s words in our Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The term “men” I interpret to mean all of mankind. There are literally more than a thousand Federal, State and Local benefits that are automatically granted to mixed gender married couples that are denied to same sex couples. By failing to recognize the commitment of same sex couples, government is both denying our liberty and our pursuit of happiness.

3) I support Marriage Equality because I believe in the Constitution of the United States of America. In Article I, Section 8, the Constitution specifies what powers Congress shall have… I see no Powers given to Congress to determine who is and who is not legally married throughout the realm. This privilege falls to the individual states via the Tenth Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Therefore, the “alleged” Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996, defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman is clearly unconstitutional and must be repealed.

4) I support Marriage Equality because I believe in the power of love. Allowing two people who love each other to marry contributes to happiness, fulfillment, and family stability. We as a religion and a society benefit from more stable relationships as do the children of parents in same sex partnerships. All children deserve to grow up in stable and loving family environments. Government and society should be doing all in its power to support more marriage.

5) I believe in Marriage Equality because without official government recognition of the loving commitment between two same sex partners, family status can be thrown into chaos in the event of one partner’s illness or death, or in a divorce situation. When the government does not recognize a same sex marriage contract: Who gets custody of children? Who inherits assets? Who can visit in the hospital? Who can make medical decisions on behalf of the afflicted partner? Often these decisions fall to other relatives and sometimes with very hurtful and angry results if those relatives are not accepting of the same sex partner relationship.

Finally, 6) I support Marriage Equality because as a gay man in a long term relationship with my partner Michael Léger, I know all too well the hurtful and heavy hand of hate and discrimination towards GLBT people, especially from many of our elected officials and from some very vocal people of faith. I suspect that there will always be people who are uncomfortable with GLBT people and that we will face some forms of bigotry and discrimination. However, official recognition of same sex unions, in my estimation, will go a long way towards reducing the level of discrimination that GLBT people experience from our own government. I believe as younger generations grow up with the idea that we are just as ordinary as most other folks, that the see that we experience the same ups and downs that all couples experience, that many of us raise children and deal with the same issues and challenged faced by mixed gender couples face, etc. the level of bigotry experienced by GLBT couples will hopefully lessen.”

I would only add one other reason to support marriage equality, a religious one: that our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, in which ceremonies of union for gay and lesbian couples have been performed for decades, has been denied its constitutional right to practice its religion for all those years, because our clergy are not allowed to sign marriage licenses for our gay and lesbian members. This bill is a freedom of religion bill for Unitarian Universalists! To me it feels like liberation!

But, coming to support marriage equality was a journey for me, as it is for most straight people, as this story illustrates. Back in January, during the legislative session when we were trying to pass the Civil Marriage Protection Act giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry, clergy supporters of equal marriage, from many different faith traditions (Islam, Judaism, UUism, and many kinds of Christian including Roman Catholic) met for a prayer breakfast and lobbying in Annapolis. A lot had changed since last year’s prayer breakfast. For one thing, obviously, we didn’t pass the bill last session – nothing like a failure to galvanize commitments! But also, this year, the attendees and speakers were more racially mixed (black and white) and it wasn’t just coffee, tea and pastries; it was a real breakfast, paid for by the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, I’m proud to say.

And the prayer breakfast speakers were not just clergy this year: the governor spoke in favor, as did the Speaker of the House Mike Busch. That was a change from last year! What I want you to know is that both of them, and one of the Black Baptist preachers as well, mentioned that coming to support marriage equality had been a journey for them, rather than something they just knew was right from the first time they heard of it. That’s the point of the story – coming to support marriage equality is a journey. An evolution, as President Obama said.

That it’s been a journey must be true for most of us, too. But once we are there, too many of us (including myself sometimes) seem to forget that it had been a gradual process for us and judge others for not being there, too.

And that’s what I want to talk about today in my remaining minutes: How can we put aside our judgments and talk with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors who are opponents of marriage equality in such a way that they move forward in that journey? How can we do that if their opposition is faith-based?

If someone is a vocal opponent, what can we say to move them toward being a silent opponent? If someone is a silent opponent, what can we say to move them toward being undecided? If someone is undecided, what can we say to move them to being a silent supporter? If someone is a silent supporter, what can we say to move them to being a vocal, activist, engaged supporter?

Here is what I would suggest. Start your conversations with a story of your own, about your journey toward support for marriage equality. The more personal and from the heart you are, the more likely someone will be to listen. If they just throw the Bible at you (so to speak), don’t argue chapter and verse. Instead say, “There are things in the Bible most of us don’t accept today, and I think discrimination against gay and lesbian people who love each other should be one of those things we no longer accept.”

With the vocal opponent, tell your story and then say something like this: I can understand that you may be uncomfortable with gay people, but there are children in our state whose parents are gay or lesbian, who are providing them with stable homes, but those children would be so much more secure if their parents could be legally wed and benefit from the 400 or more provisions in state law that support heterosexual married couples. Jesus welcomed the outcasts of his time and he is not quoted in the Bible ever even mentioning gay or lesbian couples. So, I ask you, even if you cannot support marital rights for those couples, I hope you won’t advocate that we continue to discriminate against them and their children. I feel like discrimination is just unfair; how do you feel?

With the silent opponent, tell your story and then: I wasn’t always a supporter of marriage equality for gay couples, either, but then I realized I didn’t feel right about discrimination against the gay and lesbian couples I know. I started thinking about it from their point of view: who’s to say that their love and commitment is any less real than straight people’s love and commitment? That made me really question myself and I realized I was no longer so sure of my opposition. Back then, I thought discrimination was wrong but I wasn’t sure gay marriage was right. How do you feel about discrimination?

With someone who is undecided, tell your story and then: I used to feel ambivalent, too, until I learned that, without the right to marry, gay and lesbian people do not have the legal right to visit in the ICU or participate in medical decision making for their partner at death’s door. Are you aware that long-time committed gay couples can’t benefit from 400 or more provisions in state laws that are now applicable only to married heterosexuals? Hearing all this, would you now say you lean more toward discrimination or toward equality?

With someone who is a silent supporter, tell your story and then as them to help: I’ve never been much for politics, but I recently signed a pledge to vote on Election Day for marriage equality. Did you know that the state legislature passed a law allowing it, which the governor signed, but now the opponents are collecting signatures for a referendum that, if passed, would strike it from state law? But, if we win, it will go into effect on January 1st. Will you sign this Pledge to say you’ll vote for equality on Election Day? (By the way, there are copies of the Pledge out in your foyer, if you’d like to sign it).

With someone who is an activist, you might say: Hey, it’s really great what you’ve been doing for marriage equality! What’s been your favorite thing to do so far?

Here’s mine. On the last Sunday in January, the ministers and a few lay people from the three UU congregations in Prince George’s County came together for a UU canvassing event. After lunch and an excellent training at Goodloe Memorial UU Church in Bowie, we went out door to door in a neighborhood of townhouses nearby. I was paired up with your interim minister; we each took one side of the street. It was in the district of Delegate Marvin Holmes, an opponent in 2011 who said he needed to hear from constituents this year. We knocked on 209 doors that afternoon. Only 13 people refused to talk to us. We identified 6 new volunteers. And, most importantly, we succeeded in getting 35 people to sign postcards addressed to Delegate Holmes saying, “I support marriage equality and want you to support it, too, with your vote.”

There was one woman, an African American woman probably in her thirties, who came to the door, listened, and when I asked if she supports marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, slowly said “yes.” But when I asked if she’d sign the postcard, she told me she was busy cooking right then, could I come back? I said “sure,” gave her the card, and figured that was the last I’d see of it. Well, I got to the end of her row and I headed back. She’d been watching for me. She came out the front door, apron and all, and down her sidewalk to meet me, and handed me her post card. It was filled-out! When I thanked her, she nodded and said simply, “Glad to. Thank you.”

It seems to me that people just need to be asked. It’s a journey, but we must invite them to move forward on that journey. I think they will come to understand that what this is all about is, simply, love.

It’s about the long-time loving-one-another kind of love that we mean by the word “marriage” … with spaces in your togetherness and the winds of the heavens dancing between you… It’s about the kind of love that makes a family, that makes home of a house or apartment, condo or townhouse, and nurtures any children in that home to grow into loving, secure and productive citizens.

It’s about helping everyone’s love to be the best love it can be.

*Source: Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach, by Francis DeBernardo.
New Ways Ministry, 4012 29th Street, Mt Ranier, MD 20712, 301-277-5674.

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