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July 4, 2011

Now What?

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

On the morning of June 25th – the day after New York State legalized same-sex marriage – I was traveling over the George Washington Bridge into New York hoping that most of the people had turned to pillars of salt since I wasn’t too keen on driving in traffic. Considering that New York had just become the biggest legal entity in the United States to legalize marriages of couples from the same gender, I thought that most of the people would have turned to salt, making driving so much easier for us holy and righteous people.

Sadly, to my surprise, the Major Deegan was as slow as usual, even on a Saturday morning. My pillar of salt hope was not reality.

By the end of July, same-sex couples in New York will be able to get legally married and hold the same rights as other dual-sex married couples in the state. Of course, the plethora of questions remain surrounding what it means to be a gay married couple in New York. While same-sex couples would be able to receive state benefits for being married, the federal government still will not recognize their marriages. So if a spouse of a gay married couple dies, the living spouse will not receive Social Security death benefits. When they file their Federal tax returns, they can’t do so as a married couple since the IRS will not recognize their unions. And what if the couple moves to a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage? What if they move to the Garden State, for example, where we have that “civil union” law? In the eyes of New Jersey, they aren’t married and receive no marital benefits here for being married in New York. While the Full Faith and Credit clause in our national Constitution is the law of the land, states that do not recognize gay marriage will not have to recognize it within their borders.

In a news analysis piece in yesterday’s New York Times, John Schwartz writes about some of the “what ifs” of gay marriage, particularly surrounding when gay married couples seek a divorce. The one paragraph that made me giggle:

Andrew M. Koppelman, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law and the author of “Same Sex, Different States: When Same-Sex Marriages Cross State Lines,” said that if Mr. Abbott and other attorneys general were truly serious about not recognizing same-sex marriages, they would allow obviously mischievous results. “You’re saying that somebody who lives in Massachusetts can empty the safe-deposit box, empty the bank account and go to Houston — and say, ‘Ha, ha, ha, you can’t come after me here, because Texas doesn’t recognize your marriage’?” he asked.

Conceivably, he said, a woman in a same-sex marriage in New York could abscond to the Lone Star State, where she might then marry a man, since the previous marriage doesn’t exist there.  She wouldn’t even have to tell him that she had a wife in New York. “Has Texas legalized bigamy?” he wondered.

And there we have a gay marriage dilemma.

What the argument of gay marriage should have revealed to us is that the government decides who can legally marry, not the church. It was kind of sad to see priests and leaders in the Roman Catholic Church standing in the halls of the New York State Capitol carrying signs promoting a traditional view of marriage. But in the end, the State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo rejected the calls from the church to stand to the historic understanding (that goes back multiple millennia, mind you) that marriage has always been between one man and one woman.

As I’ve written before, the state decides the requirements for a couple to be legally married. They issue a legal document – a marriage license – to a couple, which they then take to either a church, a judge, or some buddy of theirs who has been granted the legal authority by the state to marry couples for a temporary period of time. When the paperwork is signed, the couple is hitched. Whether they make a public profession of their “love” is another question. All they have to do is have the document witnessed and signed by a legal agent who can “perform” marriages, and the couple will be considered married.

People cannot just walk in off the street and come up to me or to any other priest or pastor in a church to get married. They need to have that state issued legal document. And, of course, in accordance with Saint Matthew’s, they need to be a member of the church, or at a minimum, a member of an LCMS church. Oh, and they will need to understand what we believe is a God-blessed union between one man and one woman by sitting in marriage counseling classes with me (Oh, the fun!).

In the state of New York, LCMS churches and most Christian churches will continue to hold onto their beliefs when it comes to who can get married. Of course, some churches will open their doors in a pandering effort to gain new members and marry anyone who comes through their door because they misunderstand what Christian love is all about. It happens all the time. But I have confidence that most churches will hold to the biblical understanding of marriage.

I was asked a couple of days after the legalization how I would respond to meeting a gay married couple in a subway. Besides being confused as to the weirdness of the question – I always meet people who are either straight or gay, hold different religious beliefs or no religious beliefs at all, are Mets fans rather than Yankees fans, and yet, I treat them all with love and respect. Just because a gay couple will now be considered married, I won’t change how I treat them. And that is a good lesson for us all, don’t you think?

If we meet a gay married couple, then as people Baptized into Christ, we’d treat them with respect.

If a gay married couple comes to Saint Matthew’s on some Sunday, we’d treat them like we would any visitor entering God’s house on Center Street. And we’d even offer them coffee and a snack after worship and even given them a tour of our newly renovated library.

We will not change our biblical understanding of marriage.

We will not water-down our theological beliefs to make anyone happy.

Yet we will show love for neighbor.

At the heart of our lives as Christians is the understanding that out of a love we’ll never fully grasp, God our Father sent His only-begotten Son into the flesh of humanity to save us from sin. He sent His Son to suffer and die for us, to pay our debt of sin to Him, our Creator. Jesus our Savior paid our sin debt, and through His work alone we’ve been graciously washed clean and forgiven of our sins not because of our good works but because of our God-borne faith in Christ Himself.

And as we live this life as forgiven sinners, in a world chock full of hatred for God, we show God’s love to the world.

We don’t ignore those who turn away from God. Instead, we encourage them through the speaking of the Word, through prayer, and by showing mercy and grace just like our Father showed us.

To Christians, we view the world as being a little odd. It encourages and embraces actions that we consider sinful and mocks our calls for self-control and a life of spiritual renewal through Christ. The world calls us hateful and anti-gay and closed minded and scores of other nasty words in a public relations effort to minimize the church and our public square beliefs.

Our response: to love.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:9-21

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