Today is a sad day for United Methodists in Florida.
Today on Epiphany, the Church celebrates the big reveal of Jesus being the Son of God to the Magi. It is today that the Gentiles who followed a star are said to have appeared to where Jesus was born, bringing him gifts. Gentiles, kings in their own right, but yet the outsiders of this story, today are among the first to be introduced to the Messiah.
Today is also the day, thanks to a judicial ruling that overturned the popular vote banning same-sex marriage, that gays and lesbians are able to marry in the state of Florida.
It is a joyous day for so many same-gender couples, some who have spent their lifetime fighting for the right to have their love recognized and celebrated.
So why is it a sad day for United Methodists?
Because today, if you are a gay or lesbian United Methodist couple and you ask your pastor to officiate your wedding, it doesn’t matter how long you have been a member, how ready you are for marriage, or how much money and time you give, by church law, your pastor is required to discriminate against you and your loved one and not officiate your wedding. In fact, the church is not even allowed to permit your wedding to happen on their property! As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked, the church is again “standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice.”
Thankfully there are pastors and churches of conscience who, like MLK, have said they will ignore discriminatory and unjust laws, even if that means they will be put on church trial and possibly defrocked. Many of the signatures on this list come from the West, the North and, the Northeast, but increasingly clergy from the South are adding their commitment to be obedient to their vows they took at their ordination and offer the ministries of the church to all people.
The responses to such actions by church officials are regional as well. If you are a gay or lesbian couple in the US outside the South, there are plenty of UMC churches and clergy willing to do your wedding. And in many of those areas, complaints filed against the clergy or churches never see the light of day.
This regional divide has to remind us of another day in our history when laws codifying discrimination were enforced especially viciously in the South. Sadly many United Methodist clergy and churches in Florida value discriminatory church law over doing the right thing in welcoming and affirming all people in the full life of the church. Church leaders who say they feel caught in the middle will suggest things like clergy referring gay and lesbian couples to other denominations who allow same-sex weddings.
When will the church learn? Making a couple go to a separate church to profess their love is insulting and denies them their personhood as members of the Body Of Christ within their specific community. Calling a same-sex couple’s desire to be married a “culture war” forgets that these are real people, made in the image of God, following God’s call to be in greater ministry to the world with another person.
Today, Bishop Ken Carter of Florida in a statement urged clergy to find creative ways to be present in the marriage of their gay and lesbian parishioners, suggesting clergy might say a prayer, give the sermon, or offer pre-marital counseling. This is a huge step forward for Florida and is far more inclusive than regions like Northern Alabama, where United Methodist clergy are forbidden by their bishop from having anything to do with gay and lesbian couples seeking marriage. Sadly, Bishop Carter’s guidance still advises clergy to treat their gay and lesbian parishioners as if there is something wrong with their love, instead of the church celebrating and affirming their covenant together.
One day in the near future, I know The United Methodist Church will learn, apologize, and confess its sin, but until that day, the Church needs bold witnesses to do what is right and challenge injustice in whatever forms they present themselves.
And come to think of it, maybe it is fitting for today to be both Epiphany and same-sex marriage day in Florida. The popular vote was overturned long ago by Christ bringing justice and reconciliation to a broken world. Maybe again today, like some 2000+ years ago, signs of love will be shown to “kings” in The United Methodist Church who find the normal power structures have been turned on their head. My prayer is that one day, these “wise men” in The United Methodist Church will have their hearts and minds changed by Christ’s love displayed in same-sex love, and they too will bring gifts of the full ministries of the church to an altar for all.