“Christianity and Evolution”

May 13, 2012


Acts 5:33-39


O.K., I confess to feeling a little playful when I chose the title for this morning’s sermon. We’ve been doing a lot of talking about science around here in recent months. I’ve been preaching about science and faith in recent weeks. So maybe you’d expect that I’d come to “Christianity and Evolution” at some point. The title has led you astray, however, if you were expecting something as much biological as theological today.

My sermon is concerned with the other evolution—the one everybody’s been talking about this past week—President Obama’s changing thoughts on marriage equality. As you know, he has said for some time that his views on this subject were “evolving.” And last Wednesday he announced his support for same-sex marriage. It was an historic moment. How this will affect the upcoming election remains to be seen, but it has already changed the nature and the tone of the national conversation on this topic.

President Obama did the right thing. I celebrate his “evolution.”

Of course not everyone does so—we know this from actions in our own state.

This past Monday the Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston gave its Profile in Courage award to Marsha Ternus, David Baker, and Michael Streit, three former Iowa Supreme Court justices. As you know, Ternus, Baker, and Streit—unanimously, along with six other justices—also did the right thing. They ruled that a state law banning same-sex marriage violated the equal protection language of our state Constitution. For that decision, and for that decision alone, they were marked by national groups from the religious right, were called “an arrogant elite,” and were defeated in what are usually pro forma retention votes two years ago. This politicization of our judicial system was intended to be as much a threat to judges in others states as it was a punishment of the Iowa justices. Referring to this defeat recently, Marsha Ternus said: “If  people think that what happened here doesn’t influence other judges, they’re really naïve.”

Evolution is a slow process. While our wonderful state motto declares “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” there are many people in Iowa—and across our nation—who do not want to see the church or society “evolving” in the direction that President Obama did. There are people who do not want marriage rights to be extended to all people, there are people who would strip those rights from gay men and lesbians. And their responses to the president’s announcement—calling it, among other things, an “atrocity”—indicate that they will not stop in their efforts.

Let me say, first of all, that our congregation—as a congregation—has been fairly “evolved” on the issue of marriage equality for some time. Our timeline down in Rockwood Hall shows the important moment in the life of this church when my predecessor, Bruce Fisher, officiated at the wedding ceremony of Brandon Hayes and Jack Pepples here at the church in 2001. Marriage equality was only hoped for in Iowa at the time, but this ceremony went as far as was possible in recognizing and blessing the relationship of those two men before God.

In my second year here the Iowa Supreme Court handed down its decision extending equal marriage rights to all people in Iowa. Shortly after that decision, I told our Church Council that my assumption was that marriage in this sanctuary would be open to all people. That was the assumption and the decision of the Council members as well. Since then ceremonies in this holy place have given witness to the fact that marriage is indeed between a man and a woman and it is also between a man and a man and it is also between a woman and a woman and all marriages are blessed by God.

As with all marriages the same sex couples in these weddings have been a diverse group of people: older couples who have been together for years, even decades and younger couples just starting out in adult life; some have been parents for many years and now their children have the stability of married parents, some have had children since getting married and joyfully brought them here for baptism; some were surrounded by their families, some were estranged from their families; some are members of this congregation, others are not.

The social fabric has not torn—at least not because these weddings were celebrated here. And in many ways we as a congregation have been renewed and find ourselves strengthened in living out our faith because of our own support of marriage equality. Again and again, new members say that one of the reason they joined this church is because of our open and affirming commitments.

To say that our congregation is “evolved” on the issue of marriage equality is not to say that we are, each and every one of us, in agreement. There are members whose opinions are still “evolving,” if you will. Like-mindedness has never been a requirement for membership here. We simply agree to walk together in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to us. And we recognize that the Spirit of God continues to make the way of Jesus Christ known to us in different manners at different times.

Most polls show that now over 50% of people in the United States support full marriage equality for all people. And for younger Americans that percentage is much higher. Yes, for some time to come citizens of some states will seek to deny the right to marriage to all people, as the citizens of North Carolina did last week. Others might, as we did in Iowa, seek to punish judges who understand that equal protection under the constitution requires an equal right to marriage. And many, if not most, Christian denominations still will not allow all their members to marry in their churches.

But in spite of such attacks the bonds of love and marriage will remain strong and valuable, something we will want to celebrate and cherish in this congregation.

So how do we talk with people who are not a supportive of marriage equality as we might be—or to those who actively oppose it? That is, how might be talk with our in-laws or cousins, our parents or children or siblings, our co-workers and neighbors, or with members of other churches or even of this congregation?

I think that we can start, not by arguing, not by exacting biblical exegesis, but by remembering our early history as people seeking to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.

In chapter five of the Acts of the Apostles, we read about Peter and other early followers of the risen Christ being brought before the religious leaders. When told to stop their teaching, Peter replies: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

While some reportedly wanted to kill them after such a statement, Acts also tells of a respected Pharisee, Gamaliel, who counsels: “Leave them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. In that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

I am convinced that the larger ecumenical church is at a “Gamaliel moment” in regards to marriage equality. Now is the time for us to see if this is a human undertaking or the work of God’s Spirit, blowing where it will, doing something new in the world. After three years of all kinds o f weddings in this sanctuary, I am convinced that something good, something momentous is happening, something that, indeed, is of God.

When Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth, trying to address many of the questions that congregation had about sex and marriage, he wrote out of uncertainty and even bewilderment. Because of this, over and over he invoked the Spirit of God, writing, “I think...I think that I have the Spirit of God.” In the midst of new questions and new circumstances, when times are uncertain, we can claim God’s Spirit as our guide and our support in uncharted territory rather than fall back on established tradition and the way things have been.

I think we have the Spirit. I think that God is doing something new and something good in the world and I rejoice that this congregation is a part of that new creation.

We have recently heard a lot of concern about religious liberty from some churches—and in our nation we do need to be alert to government intrusion into religion. But we also need to be on guard against the church’s intrusion into our secular government. I would call on those who are concerned to respect the faithful decisions of those of us in churches who support and celebrate marriage equality. Our freedom to join people in marriage should not be denied simply because some disagree with it.

My guess is that most if not all of the same-sex couples who have been married here have had the struggles and tensions that all partners experience after marriage. And they seek to work through those difficulties because they expect and want their marriages to last. So we must join in words and actions that will support those unions and expand the rights of all people.

You might remember that iconic Shephard Fairey poster of Barack Obama from the 2008 campaign, showing his face with the word “Change We Can Believe In” underneath. One of the many parodies of this poster showed a portrait of Charles Darwin above the words “Very Slow and Gradual Change We Can Believe In.”

Evolution takes time. It is slow and gradual.

As Christians we can give thanks for such change. We can also do our part to speed up the process, to participate in the new thing that God is doing among us, so that the joy and challenge of marriage is open to all.