Asheville Reverend Takes a Moral Stand for Equality

You may have read this week about Joe Hoffman, the Asheville pastor who took a stand for equality under the law when he decided to refrain from legalizing heterosexual marriages while the law discriminates against gays and lesbians. Joe's spouse, Noel Nickle, was kind enough to send a copy of Sunday's sermon on this topic along with a list of other resources on marriage equality. (You can email Noel to learn more about their work in Asheville for marriage equality.)

I had planed to excerpt the sermon, but after reading it I have decided to print the whole thing. I realize that I'm asking for a few more minutes of attention than blog posts usually get, but I feel sure that it will be time well spent. Joe makes his case clearly and eloquently, and his example will serve us well as we strugle to rescue the rhetoric of morality from the dominion of the right.

Joe's church is the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville. The denomination's website is here. The sermon may also be downloaded in Word format; a list of resources follows.

It’s Time
for This to Change

A sermon
by Rev. Joe Hoffman

19, 2006

Text: 1 Samuel

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 them.

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
. 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
for that.

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
– 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 mother, 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 lot families.

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

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 simple.

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.)

Resources for further
study of marriage equality

Why Marriage Matters: America,
Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry

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. The book is authored by Evan Wolfson, named
one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential and powerful people in
the world in 2004.

Same Sex Marriage: A Christian
Ethical Analysis
, by Marvin Ellison

Marvin spoke here last October
, and he brings a justice lens to the conversation about marriage. This
is a very readable book on the different understandings of marriage.
Ellison is Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary
in Maine, a gay man, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church.

Exile 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 plans 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.

Gay Unions: In the Light
of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason
by Gray Temple. This Episcopalian
priest argues the case for the legitimacy of gay marriage, guided by
three guiding principles used in Anglican tradition to discern the will
of God.

I also recommend:

“Homophobia: The Last “Respectable”
Prejudice, by William Sloane Coffin in his book of Essays on Public
Morality entitled The Heart is a Little to the Left.

Sexuality 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

Redefining Sexual Ethics:
A Sourcebook of Essays, Stories, and Poems
edited by Susan Davies
and Eleanor Haney. A variety of articles.

This is just a sampling of
resources, and all of these should be available through Accent On Books.
I hope we might be able to purchase these books for the church library
in order to make them available to all of us. If you would like to help
with this, please speak to Rev. Joe Hoffman

I also will plan to put some
copies of a sermon by Rebecca Voelkel on Marriage Equality in the library.



Would that even a small percentage of today's so-called religious leaders had such compassion and commitment to justice. Sadly, this wonderful minister is in a distinct minority from all I can see.