Carla Bailey, Senior Pastor
March 29, 2009
In 2000, then Vermont Governor Howard Dean signed a law allowing civil unions in Vermont, giving same sex couples all the rights and privileges of marriage except the word marriage. It was a culmination of a vicious battle with Take Back Vermont signs everywhere, countered by Keep Vermont Civil signs. It so happened that my family participated in a walk to raise money for breast cancer research not long after the legislation was signed and Governor Dean was at the walk to welcome and thank participants. I had an opportunity to shake the governor’s hand and I thanked him for signing the legislation. He laughed and said hardly anyone thanks him for doing it. Not long after Governor Dean’s unsuccessful run for the presidency, Warren and I went to hear him speak at Dartmouth. Among the questions he was asked that night was one from a clearly despondent student wondering how can he be hopeful in the face of some of the decisions the Bush administration was making. I remember Howard Dean’s answer so clearly – “the arc of the moral universe is long”, he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., “but it bends toward justice”. He went on to say, if anyone had told him in 2000 that his decision to sign the civil unions legislation would represent something of a conservative approach to same sex civil rights, he would have been simply incredulous.
Well, it’s been quite a week in the Vermont and New Hampshire legislative bodies. Both have passed freedom to marry legislation. In Vermont, Governor Douglas has announced his intended veto. In New Hampshire, Governor Lynch has remained quiet, pending the deliberation in the New Hampshire Senate. Or perhaps he’s wondering how to veto same sex marriage AND the repeal of the death penalty and maintain his party affiliation. In any case, the arc of the moral universe has been bending toward justice. Courageous people have spoken from their hearts about their lives. Some conservative people, recognizing that marriage is a stabilizing influence in a culture, have supported full marriage equality. Some people of faith have recognized that a covenant must be a living thing or it has no consequence. Since 2000, the opinions of many of us have evolved, including some of us in this congregation. Marriage is a public commitment to fidelity, partnership, and mutual support. Why on earth should we deny that to anyone who wants it?
Back in 2000, when the debate in Vermont was especially vitriolic within and among religious bodies, Bill Coffin invited several clergy to his home for conversation and a strategy session. Though I wasn’t a resident of Vermont, Bill included me anyway. We were all members of the United Church of Christ sitting in his living room that day. At one point, one of us said that we have to take seriously that the pending legislation actually changes the definition of marriage. How does it do that, I asked. How, exactly, is the definition of marriage going to be different? It just is, he replied, dismissing me as the granite-head he clearly thought I was. But I still don’t know the answer to the question. I remember, many years ago, having a conversation with a group of older women in my church. One of them was celebrating an anniversary and her husband, who I experienced as a curmudgeon of the highest order, was taking her off to a romantic dinner and a bed and breakfast. You’re kidding, I said. Oh no, Morris is very romantic. It got us talking about marriages. Around that circle of women, the marriages were long – 60 years, 48 years, 55 years, and so on. Of Morris and Janet I wondered aloud how do people stay married so long? Oh, she said, there were some bad years. But it’s a covenant, you know, and all covenants change or they just get brittle and break. I was silenced by her wisdom, though I never could think of Morris as romantic in any way. I’m going to direct this question to those in the room this morning who have been married longer than, say, 25 years – have your marriages changed at all during that time? Or have they stayed pretty much the same as the day you first made your covenant promise?
Jeremiah, one of my favorite prophets, wrote to his people who were living in exile. They were cut off from home, strangers in Babylon, having been conquered by the Babylonian army. They wanted to go home, back to the land they had loved. The memories of home were strong – the rituals of a religion they were no longer allowed to practice, the greetings they gave one another in the mornings no longer tolerated, fears for those from whom they were forcefully separated racing through their minds. Some of them tried to assimilate and pretend they were glad to be in this new place, you know, get along – not draw any attention to themselves, slide below the radar. Some of them fought viciously and constantly and were viciously jailed or even executed. They believed God had abandoned them because they had been faithless. They had broken the covenant God had made with their ancestors when they had been freed from slavery in Egypt. They lost their homeland as a result. Everything they thought had been true was in disarray.
Jeremiah, God’s prophet to the exiled people, never lost faith that God would restore them, and in these words, Jeremiah told them what God would do. “This is the covenant I will make – I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The covenant would no longer be an external thing but an internal matter of the heart, much like marriage, I suspect – a covenant of the heart.
But this is not a sermon so much about marriage, though I’m sure it has sounded like one. Rather, it’s a sermon about covenant, more specifically, God’s covenant and how it is written on our hearts, not on tablets, walls of the courthouse or even within legislation, passed, vetoed or otherwise in process. Of course, that’s easy for me to say. Nothing has been denied me by law. I married the person I wanted to marry. I practice the career I sought. I can go into any restaurant, any health care center, any classroom without fear of being denied service or even a modicum of respect. So it’s easy for me to say that the covenant written on my heart has more power than any state or federal legislation.
But it’s also true that the covenant written on my heart has taken me to places I never thought I would go. It has given me a voice in testimony before legislative bodies. God’s covenant in my heart has made me unafraid. It has given me peace of mind and strength of resolve. God’s covenant has allowed me to grieve without remorse, forgive without reservation, laugh without derision, cry without despair. God’s covenant, written on my heart, has made just about everything better.
We are soon entering Holy Week. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we think about Jesus’ humble and courageous entry into Jerusalem, the sophisticated and dangerous city. If nothing else, the week will remind us of the high cost of discipleship. But it will end, as it should, with the reminder that God’s covenant on our hearts is a living thing, a vital, rich, transformative promise that we are never, ever, ever alone against the enemy. Never. It is that living covenant that makes every other covenant pale by comparison. And it is the covenant written on my heart that gives me hope. Amen.