Here is the sermon I preached earlier today at Uniting Church Sketty [Methodist/United Reformed], Swansea, on the occasion of a “Thanksgiving Service for Bob and Andy”.
After two days of display of our dark side [the mind-numbing, heart-breaking, soul-destroying Tory victory at the General Election], it is wonderful to reflect today on what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”. Most of you will be familiar with my accent, but some of you won’t, so as a warm-up let me ask you if you know what the Religious Right in the United States calls a gay wedding? Anyone? … An “Obamanation”… Terrible pun, I know, but if you start with a bad joke, then things can only get better, right? Or not …
In any case, this service is not a gay wedding. And not quite a service of “blessing”. It’s a service of prayer and “thanksgiving”. We thank God for Bob and for Andy, and for Bob-and-Andy, for the grace that has led them and bound them to each other, and for their mutual love and commitment. Of course what you do in your hearts is entirely up to you. It’s the heart that God searches, and in the Free Church tradition ministers don’t have a monopoly on blessings, so knock yourself out with your heart’s desire. Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God, but, like tortoises, we only make progress if we stick our necks out. As the American writer, feminist, lesbian Rita Mae Brown remarks: “The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.”
That’s why it’s so significant that our Bible reading today is the Beatitudes, which launch the Sermon on the Mount, for the Beatitudes are a manifesto of radical nonconformity in the face of the way the world works: brokenness and need are celebrated, not autonomy; integrity, not expediency; peace-making, not fear-mongering and vengeance. Here is the definitive description of Christian living even if, alas, it has been more honoured as an implausible ideal than a doable practice. In fact, the only person ever to perfectly embody the Beatitudes is Jesus of Nazareth himself. Nevertheless, ridiculously counter-intuitive though they are, there they are, implacably, and there not only as a nine-couplet description of the Christian but as a snapshot of what all human beings are supposed to look like.
Particularly in the context of the struggle for LGBT inclusion, observe that the topic of persecution receives special emphasis. The insulted, hounded, and attacked – the blessedness of these people is the climax of the Beatitudes. Moreover, it’s these, the badgered and bullied, who are told to rejoice – yes, rejoice! – for in the same way, Jesus declares, the prophets were victimised. Victimised because denying denial and “coming out”, prophets challenge convention and interrupt the status quo. They go “Boo!” to power, but contrary to the experience of Elmer [the “patchwork elephant” – the wonderful children's story had just been read], the response of the herd is often derision, not laughter. But “Rejoice!” nevertheless, because it is precisely in this state of vulnerable nonconformity that you are “blessed”, which means that you are “in just the right place” – the place of authenticity, fidelity, and truth – and so in just the right place to encounter our vulnerable, nonconformist God as she invades our social and religious space.
Needless to say, you cannot live in this demanding place on your own, it can only be lived in a community of friends, people gathered around the values of Jesus in mutual support and encouragement; a counter-community to the world of mutual distrust and hostility; a community that may be larger than an orchestra or as small as a duet – like this one here: Bob-and-Andy, companions in improvising a lifelong riff on faith, hope, and love.
Of course, when you improvise you inevitably make mistakes. And that’s where experience kicks in: it’s experience that enables us to recognise mistakes when we make them, and to make new and improved mistakes next time. In fact, in our relationships, there is never any mistake-free zone. Thus the edgy American theologian Stanley Hauerwas suggests that we always marry the wrong person, to stress that the chemistry of initial attraction will never sustain a partnership of the broken – and aren’t we all broken? – that only the work of love – the honouring of promises, the making of sacrifices, the sharing of pain – can do that. And thus English novelist Salley Vickers candidly observes, in The Other Side of You, “an elementary equation, rarely recognised, that the reasons for choice of partner are obscure, that what passes for love is decidedly a mixed bag, and that even our finer impulses can wreak more havoc than the more blackguardly ones.” So mistakes – yes, of course, what else! And yet, Vickers concludes, through it all, two people may yet experience a “sheer reciprocal joy in the other’s being”.
What a lovely phrase! And that, Bob and Andy, is my prayer today for you: that through all the public hassles and private muddles of being and staying together, you may experience “sheer reciprocal joy in [each] other’s being” as you grow old together. Well, given your antiquity, as you grow older together! So yes, for sure, to you and for you, we all say and pray: “Thanks be to God!”