Unity in Mission Papers and Sermon

9781514741436_p0_v1_s192x300As noted in my introduction to “The Rector’s Report and Unity in Mission,” the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, recently granted his permission for same-gender marriages to be conducted at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, in accord with his revised Unity in Mission Policy and the paper Unity in Mission: A  Bond of Peace for the Sake of Love. The letters and documents that were sent to him to make that determination have been made available to the congregation and are also linked in the list below:

The Rector’s Letter to the Bishop

The Senior Warden’s Letter to the Bishop

Unity in Mission Task Force Report and Recommendation

Understanding Diverse Perspectives on Same-Gender Marriage

Why People Are Opposed to Gay Marriage

Conversation Guidelines

Brief Summary of Positions on Same-Gender Marriage

Unity in Mission Summary

In the fall of 2013, my previous congregation in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis was in the midst of a similar conversation. Same-gender marriage had become legal earlier that year in Minnesota, and a pastoral letter from the Rt. Rev. Brian N. Prior, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, which included guidelines for his clergy, was written in response to that change in civil law. Most of my parishioners embraced that out of love for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ.

Two things that had shaped my own thinking about same-gender marriage by this time were the Rev. Gray Temple’s short and accessible book Gay Unions in the Light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason and a public discussion in 2012 that I attended at the University of Minnesota between David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, moderated by On Being’s Krista Tippett, about “The Future of Marriage.” I commend both resources to everyone who desires to strengthen the institution of marriage.

While my congregation reflected on this, I responded to a request for pastoral care from two men in my community of faith who had been in a committed and loving relationship for more than three decades. These faithful Christians hoped to be married on the thirty-third anniversary of their first meeting. So, following the guidelines of the Bishop of Minnesota, I agreed to officiate at their marriage on that anniversary. It took place at a neighboring Episcopal parish since my own parish was honoring and completing the process outlined by our bishop in his letter.

I thought about that a lot the next year, after we had moved to Texas. My wife Carrie and I celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary on October 11, 2014. The next morning, on Sunday, October 12, the flowers at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church were given to the glory of God in thanksgiving for the first wedding anniversary of a same-gender couple in my new congregation. Monday, October 13, marked the first wedding anniversary of the two men in Minnesota whose marriage I had blessed.

Acknowledging the fact that there are people whom I know and love deeply who will disagree with me about all of this, I think it’s important for me to share with others the words of my sermon at that wedding more than three years ago in Minnesota. The happy couple have given me permission to do so, for which I am most grateful.

Here’s what I said:

St. Edward’s Episcopal Church, Wayzata, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Sunday, October 13, 2013

“. . . the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David,
and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”
(1 Samuel 18:1)

It was thirty-three years ago today that Danny and Michael first met. Danny comes from a small town in Iowa, and Michael is from Minneapolis, where their lives intersected and a relationship began. They fell in love, and that love has brought them to this day in this church.

Danny and Michael, together you have witnessed so many things change and evolve over the last several decades. Our society has changed. Our church has changed. But your love for each other and God’s love for both of you has endured it all.

Richard Hooker was a theologian of the English Reformation who proposed a “threefold cord not easily broken” in the form of scripture, tradition, and reason.[1] It’s that last part, reason, that often draws people to the Episcopal Church. Yet Hooker understood reason to include more than we usually think it does. For him it combined the head, the heart, and the spirit.[2]

That’s what we bring to our reading of scripture, the book of the church that shapes the story of the church. The Bible is, in fact, a library of books that God invites us to explore. The late biblical scholar Raymond Brown once wrote that “in the scriptures we are in our Father’s house where the children are permitted to play.” [3]

Episcopal priest Gray Temple — in his book Gay Unions in the Light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason — wrote the following words that have been my companion as a beloved child of God who likes to rummage around in the attic of that house to discover what long-forgotten treasures might be hidden there:

When the Bible has catalyzed reformation and renewal throughout history, it has done so by its strangeness, by its departure from what people had presumed it said. Consequently, reading strategies that filter out or gloss over strangeness neutralize the Bible’s power to transform us.

Martin Luther had thought the sum of the biblical message was, “Be good!” Then he hit some strange passages. His discovery that both Testaments tell us, “The just shall live by faith,” launched the Protestant Reformation, energized by Luther’s delighted astonishment. The sandy irritant of strangeness forms the heart of many a spiritual pearl, if the oyster risks opening up to admit it.[4]

Danny and Michael, I thought about that image of a spiritual pearl after you chose to have the story of David and Jonathan’s first meeting read this afternoon. Our text says that “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”[5] And after Jonathan’s death, David mourns him, saying, “greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”[6] It’s remarkable that those descriptions of their relationship have been preserved through the centuries in the biblical narrative.

Perhaps the words that we heard today echo the language in this passage from the poetry of the Song of Songs. It’s the voice of a young woman, describing the man whom she loves:

Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go . . .[7]

I don’t know if it’s fair to connect those beautiful words to David and Jonathan. But I do believe that those words speak the truth about you, Danny and Michael. Those words can be your words: “I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go . . .” You have not let go of each other for thirty-three years, and today you will have the chance to declare that truth publicly.

As Gray Temple puts it so well in his book:

[Recognizing this as marriage] shelters us all under the same moral canopy. It compels all of us to recognize that marriage is not primarily constituted by externals — a man and a woman — but by the relationship itself: faithful, truthful, mutual, and permanent.[8]

Danny and Michael, there’s something else that hasn’t let go of either one of you over the past thirty-three years. It’s the love of God that we have seen in the face of Jesus Christ — the same love in which your marriage is to be rooted, by which your marriage is to be blessed, and through which all the rest of us will be blessed too.

Michael and Danny


BACK TO POST Gray Temple, Gay Unions in the Light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason (New York: Church Publishing, 2004) 24. The phrase in quotations comes from Ecclesiastes 4:12.

BACK TO POST Temple 24.

BACK TO POST Raymond Brown, quoted by Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) xiii.

BACK TO POST Temple 41- 2.

BACK TO POST 1 Samuel 18:1.

BACK TO POST 2 Samuel 1:26.

BACK TO POST Song of Songs 3:1-4.

BACK TO POST Temple 147.

2 thoughts on “Unity in Mission Papers and Sermon

  1. Pingback: Post-Election Word from the Rector | Tumbleweed Almanac

  2. Pingback: Life on the 400 Block of the Church | Tumbleweed Almanac

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