It's Time for This to Change
Rev. Joe Hoffman
A month or so ago, I became clear that I had to
do something different in my life. It was one of those experiences that
you can't make happen - it happens to you. I think of it as an epiphany,
a time when God's presence fills us and we are changed in some way. It
is a transforming moment. It was not an extraordinary event- I can't tell
you specifically how it happened. More of an "aha" experience. No one
came to me and said - Joe, you should do this. No one. The idea was one
I first heard of in a lecture last fall. It was a like a seed in me that
grew. I am glad to have the opportunity to share it with you today.
This text about Samuel hearing God call is an epiphany text. It also
is one of my favorite texts - one that I loved as a child. I found myself
wanting God to call me, to use me to do some good in my life. I prayed
the way Eli taught Samuel to pray - an opening prayer - God, here I am.
God use me.
I didn't know what I was asking. We never know. But God can take our
prayers and shape our lives with them. Be careful what you pray for.
This text has haunted my imagination all these years. I chose this text
as the one for my ordination service. And I have chosen it today because
I find in it words of challenge and hope for times such as ours.
I grew up across town in a United Methodist church. I remember back
in the early 70's when a black family started coming to our otherwise
all white church. I only remember two members of the family - the mother
who sang in our choir, and her son who was about my age and who joined
our youth group.
Our youth group had a tradition of going to the beach on a retreat every
summer. We went to the same place each year. Somehow the retreat center
down in South Carolina found out that we had a new member in our group,
and they contacted the pastor and said: "we are delighted that you plan
to come again this summer. We love having you. We do need to tell you
that it is not possible for you to bring the new member of your group
who is black. We on the staff don't have a problem with that of course,
but the board of directors has made this policy, and we are sure you will
understand. " Our pastor, a most beloved man, came to us and simply said
- we will need to find another place for our retreat this year. Because
a place that will not allow all our people to come is a place where we
will not take any of our people.
That story has helped to shape my understanding of what it means to
be Christian and what it means to be the church.
In 1982, I went away to a small graduate school in Nashville, TN. My
world view was very small - having not traveled or read very much, and
this school was multi cultural, multi racial, open and affirming, and
international. I loved all of that - but I had a lot to learn.
One day a man in one of my classes asked me to have coffee. I am going
to call him Lewis. We went down to the corner coffee shop and talked.
He was in his 40's, I was in my 20's. He was an ordained United Methodist
minister and worked as an editor for the United Methodist Publishing House.
He told me in that conversation that he was gay. What he didn't know is
that I had a very limited understanding of what it meant to be gay - and
I really thought that gays were people who were sick, who had some broken
place inside that needed healing. I did not say this to Lewis of course.
He invited me into his life. And I accepted the invitation. I think
he needed a friend on campus. And I needed such a friend too. So we walked
an unlikely road together. He invited me to his home, where I met his
long time partner and some of their friends. He told me how careful he
and his partner had to be in public spaces - how they had to withhold
their affection for each other in places where others might see - like
the airport, like in church. Because if people knew they were gay, and
in a relationship, they could lose their jobs. There were no laws to protect
I was appalled by that. That someone could be fired simply because of
their sexual orientation. And I was appalled that people that I had come
to know and love had to live in such fear. I knew deep inside of me that
things needed to change.
That was 1982. I hope you saw the Mountain Express a couple weeks ago
- it told the story of our own Kathryn Cartledge in 1996 being offered
a chaplaincy position here in the area - only to be fired from that job
before she even worked her first day. Just because she was lesbian. And
the recent news about a woman named Laurel losing her job at the Wolf
Laurel Ski Resort because she put in the Asheville Citizen Times an announcement
of her wedding to Virginia, her partner.
Things still need to change! It is not okay for our laws to discriminate
against certain people. That is not what our country is about. And I do
not want to participate in the injustice.
Now, I want to stop at this point and acknowledge something. I am piled
up with privilege. I am male, white, American, middle class, educated,
clergy, heterosexual. I do not put myself down for any of these identifications.
It is who I am. And I know that most importantly, I am a child of God,
loved and blessed. I love who I am. But I am not the only one loved and
blessed by God. All of us are. Each and every one of us - a child of God,
loved and blessed. My privilege in society does not come from God, but
from our culture, our laws, our government. God blesses us all the same.
It is our world that gives some of us privilege and power - and denies
that to others of us. The powers that be give us our privilege and power.
Now, in this text from Samuel - God comes to Samuel and says - Samuel,
I call you to be an agent of my presence in the world. Not just to be
a nice guy. Not just to do good things. But - listen now - God called
Samuel to be an agent of God's spirit that would overpower the powers
that be . And in particular, God called Samuel to speak out against Eli
and his family - the dominant priestly family - who had stopped listening
to God, for whom the word was not frequent, for whom the light had grown
dim. They had allowed abuse and corruption to become part of the temple
practices. And God said to Samuel - it is time for things to change!
I believe it is time for things to change in our world too. And I know
it is time for me to do some things differently.
One of my responsibilities and privileges as a pastor is to work with
couples who want to be married. I counsel with them. We plan a religious
service. And I officiate at that service. I love this part of my job.
And I hope to be doing weddings for the rest of my life with those couples
that I think are in a just, loving, and mutual relationship. I will continue
to do weddings for heterosexual couples, and for gay and lesbian couples.
It is the role of the church to bless and support loving and just relationships.
But I have decided that I can no longer, I will no longer, legalize
marriages for heterosexual couples. By that I mean I will no longer sign
the document from the state of North Carolina that makes a religious wedding
also a legal ceremony. When I sign that piece of paper, I participate
in the perpetuation of a system of injustice and oppression. I sign over
about 1100 rights and privileges that are written into law to those who
are heterosexual. This is discrimination, this is injustice, and I cannot
knowingly participate in this as an agent of the state any longer. My
job is to be your pastor. To offer pastoral care to all of us. To advocate
for the rights of all of us. To make sure as best I can that the practices
of the church are not discriminatory and oppressive.
We are a church of God's creative diversity. We are not a heterosexual
congregation. We are a church of many people and many family configurations.
James Nelson has written that most Biblical scholars today agree that
there are at least 40 different kinds of families named in the Bible.
Not just one - not a man and woman, or a man and a woman and a child,
but 40 different kinds. We are a church that includes many of these different
family configurations. And I thank God for that. And I want to offer blessing
Rebecca Voelkel is the executive officer for the Institute for Welcoming
Resources, and she reminds us that the Biblical imperative is to follow
Jesus' commandment to love God and to love our neighbor. When I study
the story of Jesus life and ministry, I see that he grew into his understanding
of faith and leadership by living out this ethic of love, and often that
meant standing apart from or against the rules and traditions of his time
that he found to be unjust or not God filled.
I believe we are called to do the same. I believe this was at the heart
of our decision to be an Open and Affirming congregation. I have come
to see more clearly that I must be more diligent in naming the ways I
have power over others, and working hard to not let my privilege be a
source of oppression for others. I want to use my power to overcome the
powers in our world that create injustice for others. And I want to let
go of my privilege and power that participates in the discrimination and
injustice of our laws. Marriage is one of the oldest, most traditional
institutions in our society. It is about social arrangements. Marriage
encompasses economics, property, reproduction and child rearing, caregiving,
and extended family and community relations. And the essence of marriage
is the courage and generosity with which two persons commit to each other
in truthfulness, mutuality, fidelity, and the expectation of permanence.
The laws of our land do not support the possibility of marriage for anyone
who is not heterosexual. And thus, the laws of our land do not allow for
legal social arrangements for those who are gay and lesbian, bisexual
and transgendered. (ideas from Marvin Ellison)
It is time for this to change!
We are a country in which we pride ourselves on freedom. Why do we allow
that freedom to some but not to others? Marriage is an institution that
is important and valuable. But it should be for everyone, not just for
some of us. Abraham Lincoln once said: "Those who deny freedom to others
deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain
it." Congressman John Lewis, a great leader in the civil rights movement
in our country, has cautioned us to not think in terms of separate but
equal with gay rights - because we have been down that road already and
separate is never equal.
When we get to the place of trying to put people in categories, and
make laws that work out of those categories, we need to stop and ask ourselves
what we are doing. I want to suggest this - the issue is not one of gay
marriage. That is what we hear most of the talk focus on. But I suggest
the issue is not about gay marriage - it is more truthfully about heterosexual
privilege - and how those of us who have that privilege choose to use
it. I do not believe that most of us ever intentionally try to hurt someone
else. But in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, read by Courtney and
Emma Claire in the youth service a few weeks ago, "injustice anywhere
is a threat to justice everywhere.". Those words have continued to ring
in my ears. Our doing nothing allows things to stay the same. By doing
nothing we support the status quo, which is causing some of our people,
some of our family, some of our neighbors, to live in cruel and unjust
realities. William Sloan Coffin once said: "tolerance and passivity are
a lethal combination." And we just can't forget that "compassion demands
confrontation." (The Heart is a Little to the Left, p. 37) To put it another
way, again in the words of Coffin, "God's creation is far more pluralistic
than the eyes of many straights have wished to perceive. " (p. 40) And
I would add that God's blessing is for all of that creation - not just
some of it.
As your pastor, I have listened to the stories that many of your have
told. I have heard parents say that they struggle when their child says
- I am gay or lesbian, not so much because their sexual orientation is
an issue to the parent, but because the parents know how hard and violent
the world can be. One parent said: I never imagined that my child would
have fewer rights under the constitution than I had. But it is true.
I have heard stories about partners who are not allowed to make end
of life decisions for their dying loved one - because they are not married.
It is written into our marriage laws. I have heard about the adult child
of one of our families - who gave birth to a child herself, then spent
a lot of money in lawyer fees to give away her rights as a mo ther, then
spent a lot more money in legal fees so that she and her lesbian partner
could adopt that same child together - so that both of them could have
the rights of a parent.
I have heard the stories of not being able to access your partner's
Medicare or Social Security benefits; of not having access to a partner's
health insurance, of not being able to leave your inheritance to a partner.
None of us who are married have to face this. We are protected by the
law. A law that is written on heterosexual privilege. A set of laws that
put at risk a lot of people in our congregation. A lot of children. A
In the text, God called forth a new day through Samuel. God could no
longer let things be the way they were. God called on Samuel to have courage
and overcome the powers that were doing this injustice. And Eli, the one
who had been unfaithful in many ways, Eli was now faithful in that he
yielded his power, he yielded his privilege in order to make way for God's
change to come about.
I think both parts of the story are important. We have to listen and
even ask for God to speak to us. And we have to be willing to yield our
privilege in order to make way for God to do a new thing.
It is time for things to change. My decision to no longer legalize weddings
is but a very small step. But it is something I have the power to do.
My decision will cause some of us a small inconvenience - because we will
have to legalize our weddings in a different way, if that is what you
choose to do. I will talk you through that process - which is very simple
and very inexpensive. Noel and I went through this process ourselves last
summer when we were married. We had a religious service, then two days
later we legalized that wedding with a justice of the peace. It was very
I hope whatever inconvenience we might experience will help those of
us with heterosexual privilege to think more about the huge injustice
that our gay and lesbian friends must endure. I make this decision because
it is one way I can be less complicit in the system that perpetuates that
injustice, and more in solidarity with those who suffer from it. I also
make this decision knowing full well that I am still deeply complicit
in the injustice.
I want us to talk about all of this. I hope you will come to the pastoral
conversation tonight at 5pm. It is a first conversation. I am providing
a resource list, available in the narthex as you leave today, for further
reading and study. I hope the Open and Affirming committee will help to
create some learning opportunities around all of this. And I invite you
to talk with me. I apologize that I will be out of town all of this coming
week. I had wanted to preach this sermon last Sunday, but because of the
weather, had to change the schedule. I am sorry for that, but I promise
I will be available once I am back in town. I invite you into this new
journey with me. I would love to have your support - even to the point
that someday this church might decide that we will no longer have any
legal weddings in our sanctuary for some people until we can have them
for all people. But for now, I ask you to pray with me, to talk with me,
to seriously think about what I have shared and to learn more about it.
I long for the day when our children can marry whomever they love -
without having to live in fear, without having to be oppressed. I long
for the day that parents of gays and lesbians do not have to worry about
how their children will be treated in school - or in church - or in the
work place - or in the public square - or by the laws of our land. I long
for the day when a child who has two mothers or two fathers can know that
he or she is part of a real family - not some strange abnormal living
arrangement that others make fun of. I long for a time when we can all
feel the blessing of God for who we are . I believe its time for things
to change. I have to do some things differently now because it is the
only way I know to live out my commitment, my promise, to follow Jesus.
I ask you to hold me in your prayers. And I ask you to walk with me along
the way. Amen.
(The thoughts and ideas in this sermon have come from my readings of
a number of people, including Mahan Siler, Marvin Ellison, Evan Wolfson,
William Sloan Coffin, Carter Heyward, Rebecca Voelkel, and many more.)
Joe Hoffman is the pastor of First
Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, N.C. He delivered
this sermon on February 19, 2006.
Resources for further study:
Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry Evan
Wolfson. This is a very good exploration of marriage in our
society, the rights that come with marriage, the distinction between civil
unions and marriage, and why the freedom to marry matters to all people.
Wolfson was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential and powerful
people in the world in 2004.
Sex Marriage: A Christian Ethical Analysis by Marvin Ellison.
Ellison is Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary
in Maine. He brings a justice lens to the conversation about marriage,
calling forth relationships that are just, mutual, and loving - no matter
what the sexual orientation.
or Embrace? Congregations Discerning Their Response to Lesbian and Gay
Christians by Mahan Siler. Mahan writes of his experience
as Pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, a church he served
for 15 years. He admits that he did not go to this church in 1983 with
any plan to address the injustice of this issue directly. But one experience
after another pulled him into the public conversation. This book is the
story of that journey and his reflections on the experience.
and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflections , edited by James
B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. This book has a variety
of articles on different topics of sexuality and the sacred.
Sexual Ethics: A Sourcebook of Essays, Stories, and Poems edited by Susan
Davies and Eleanor Haney.
"Homophobia: The Last "Respectable" Prejudice," by William Sloan Coffin
in his book of essays on Public Morality entitled The
Heart is a Little to the Left.
Copyright © by the author
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